Reflections: Interview with Alan Ek

Can you describe how you came to love the outdoors?

I grew up half in the Twin Cities and half on a farm. As a kid, I was outdoors all the time, and I slowly came to realize that where I liked to be was outdoors in forested settings. As my interest grew, I started to read everything about forests that I could get my hands on. I was very job- and career-oriented, and a number of part-time jobs, both good and bad, taught me what I didn’t want to do. As I look back, I am indebted to fellow students and faculty who greatly broadened my understanding of the possibilities in my studies and career.  Alan Ek

Can you describe a standout experience from your years working in the field?

Early in my career, the experience of working for what is now the Canadian Forestry Service in Ontario greatly expanded my interest in forest resources and their history and development globally. That experience was a start on a new direction beyond my specialization in biometrics and measurement toward a focus on analyzing forest resource dynamics broadly. Touring forests and forestry research centers in Europe and the Nordic countries several years later further broadened my horizons. In the 1990s, while working on industry woodshed feasibility studies and environmental reviews, I learned about how society views and how governments process issues around forest resources. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate these career-shaping experiences as stories in my classes. Alan Ek using a spiegel relaskop at the Cloquet Forestry Center, 1980.

You have worked in forestry across the US and the world. Could you give an overview of where and when you worked in some of these faraway forests?

I’ve worked in a number of states, mostly in the Midwest, West, and in Washington D.C. from measuring forest resources to trying to measure congressional support for our programs. This career has also taken me from Canada to Central America and to nearly every continent; from North Africa to Russia; and from democracies with rich economies to poverty behind the Iron Curtain. Forests turned out to be important in all of these places. Of course, as a student, I really had no idea where the subject of forest science and practice would take me. Early on I had no such travel and study plans. 

National Science Foundation Project Review in Southern India

National Science Foundation Project Review in Southern India, 1994.

When you look back at the history of forestry at the U, what is most impressive to you? Describe some achievements in the Department of Forest Resources of which you are especially proud.

I have always felt our strength was the commitment of faculty, staff, alumni, and friends to the program for over a century. In doing so, we have always been oriented toward outreach and bringing key knowledge and assistance to the general public, landowners, professionals, industry, forest management organizations, and to the government at all levels. In recent years we have continued to be successful in maintaining our stature as among the strongest programs nationally. I am especially proud of the subject matter breadth and depth of our instruction as well as our graduates. There are few schools nationally, and perhaps globally, that cover as much and as deep as we are able to accomplish. That is due to our staffing, commitment, and the breadth and depth provided by the College and University overall.

A department head wears many “hats.” Describe one of your responsibilities as head that readers might not know about.

A department head leads in developing and transmitting the vision and capability of the program to faculty, staff, students, and many others. At different times the department head serves to facilitate, to protect, and to be an example. The hat? It can vary depending upon whether you are working with faculty, staff, students, industry, government, or University administration. The role is more than about forests; it is about people and forests.

Alan with his grand daughters on a grouse habitat tour.

With less time spent at Green Hall, where do you look forward to spending your time?

I look forward to being at the family cabin near Aitkin.

Mike Kilgore has been named as the interim department head. Can you describe your work to date with Mike?

Mike has incredible experience in the area of natural resource economics and policy, from field work to working for governors and the legislature to designing and implementing major programs. His knowledge of process is widely known, and he is a natural leader. I once worked for Mike as part of the contract to conduct Minnesota’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement on Forestry and the Forest Resource Base in the early 1990s. He then worked for me when we later hired him as a faculty member. Now as a professor emeritus, I am going back to working for him!

What do you see ahead for the department’s programs at and beyond the University?

I foresee that healthy and productive forests will continue to be fundamentally important to society in our region and globally. With increasing urbanization, education about the management of forests will become more and more difficult. The challenge will be to find the ways and means of reaching society so that it may benefit and prosper with the aid of our forest resources.