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The Business and Ecology of Sustainable Forestry

MS in Sustainability Management Professor Ralph Schmidt
MS in Sustainability Management Professor Ralph Schmidt

Ralph Schmidt, a new faculty member in the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management program, has over 30 years of experience in international development and global environmental issues, specializing in forests. Professor Schmidt’s work with forests has taken a very broad focus, involving all the global issues where forests are important such as biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate change, poverty reduction, indigenous people’s rights, gender equity, and international trade.

With knowledge of tropical ecology and natural resource economics, he has specialized in policy for, and conservation and management of, tropical forests and has also worked on temperate forest issues. Schmidt has directed and managed large and very complex international and state level programs within the United Nations, the government of Puerto Rico, and the private sector. He has also worked in about 50 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America and has lived abroad for fourteen years.

Schmidt will bring his expertise to the classroom in fall 2016 with a new course, The Business and Ecology of Sustainable Forestry. We wanted to share his own thoughts on Forests, Ecology and Economics; Carbon and Climate.

I think most people view forests and forestry as a bit of an outlier, something a bit removed from their daily realities. But there are many connections to human and biospheric well-being. I would like the course to internalize an appreciation for those many connections and their significance for humans. We will approach this through understanding the ecology and the economics of forests. Both are essential in making management decisions. Specialists study both, but they are rarely combined in one course. Forests are also places that have a spiritual role for humans. We will not concentrate greatly on this aspect, but I hope the course will increase a fascination and appreciation of forests.

Understanding the science and social science that underpin an understanding of forests themselves will give students the confidence that their management decisions are sound.

Forests connect importantly with biodiversity, climate change, our housing, our water, and our spiritual well-being. They bring into sharp focus the many dimensions of sustainability.

With a deeper comprehension of forests we increase our understanding of the natural world, our place in it, and the nature of sustainability for the human enterprise. I have a special interest in climate change, the biggest issue facing the human race. Forests play a secondary but very important role in this issue, and the course will place special emphasis on this role.

My work with forests started in 1970 when the Peace Corps sent me to Colombia to work with poor farmers. We were in a tropical forest and I got interested in understanding it better. I then studied forest ecology and economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. My good Spanish got me a research assistant job at the U.S. Forest Service Institute for Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico. I learned to identify the 300 species of trees there. A friend high in the Puerto Rico government asked me to be head of the Puerto Rico Forest Service. We managed a beautiful system of protected areas, as well as tree nurseries and saw mills. I was the only “anglo” in sight.

After five years at that I went to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. We worked on forestry projects of all kinds in the developing world. In 1990 I transitioned to UNDP in New York to continue that work, becoming director of their forestry program. Finally, I was CEO of a private company owning 250,000 acres of forest in northwest Argentina. We were the first FSC certified natural forest operation in that country. Along the way I wrote three reports for the World Bank Inspection Panel where we carefully examined forest project policies and consequences in Brazil, D.R. Congo and Cambodia. At present I am advising a major international reforestation program for Haiti.

Thus I have quite a bit of experience with the international assistance system, as it regards biodiversity and natural resources, and if students are interested in learning about that, I will be happy to discuss that with them.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.


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