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UF forestry has wide impact on industry, natural resources

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By Sean Arnold

The UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation (SFRC) boasts a wide scope of research and services, touching on everything from the hit film Finding Dory, to converting pine chemicals into jet fuel, to working with cutting edge industry applications for drones and electronic mapping.

The new SFRC director, Dr. “Red” Baker,” paid a visit to the Suwannee Valley Rotary Club in Chiefland just before Christmas to discuss the program’s unique accomplishments and its current projects that continue to shape the future of the industries of forestry and natural resources.

Baker, who has served in role for nine months, outlined the three main units of the SFRC, which includes its oldest part, the forestry division, as well as the fisheries and aquatic sciences program, a major part of which is operated in Cedar Key, and, thirdly, the geomatics unit. The latter includes remote sensing, satellite imaging, surveying and mapping and drones.

Most recently, geomatics has been employed to track the impact of hurricanes, such as in the Keys.
“Whether you’re in fisheries, forestry, agriculture, this technology is driving the changes that we see in those businesses on an almost daily basis,” Baker said of the geomatics program.

Baker added that the SFRC’s geomatics program is on the leading edge in providing jobs for its graduates, and it figures to remain fruitful as the population of Florida grows.

“The program is only program of its kind that’s graduating PhDs that can go an and train the next generation of surveyors and mappers anywhere in the country,” Baker said. “About 50 percent of our mappers go on to own their own business in florida, and about 65 percent go on to play some managerial role in businesses as well.
“We think we’ll need about three-times the current rate of licenses for surveyors and mappers to keep pace with demand. It’s a very lucrative career, with lot of jobs out there right now.”

Baker said the SFRC takes pride in providing practical benefits. It’s multi-pronged approach enables it to uniquely solve problems in industry. Baker counts its two main strengths as being dedicated to applied science and being able to house its various services under one umbrella.

“I think we’re better than most places in the country at solving some of the most pressing natural resource challenges that we face,” Baker said.

Baker says ornamental fish make up the biggest part of aquaculture, and UF’s SFRC was the first program to successfully breed in captivity the blue tang fish, the same breed as Dory of Finding Dory fame.

“We’re experts at taking fish out of the wild and finding what combination of water temperatures and light, a whole host of other things are needed to host these fish and help breed new ones,” Baker said.
It’s a $35 million industry in Florida, he added.

SFRC started an undergraduate major for fisheries in 2012, and had nearly 100 students enrolled last fall.
The UF forestry program was recently ranked third in the country among all natural resource and conservation programs in the U.S., Baker reported. It has around 60 majors in forestry and 100 in natural resources, and it boasts a 90 percent job placement rate in major-related field for its graduates.

Baker said the forest industry in Florida generates $12 billion in revenue, most from pulp, and its employees account for about $25 billion in economic impact.

“Most people think Mickey Mouse and Orange trees in Florida,” Baker said. “But forestry is still a very big business in state.”

SFRC was a part of the first Southern Pine Cooperatives, which partnered research with industry to improve the productivity of trees. Baker says over 99 percent of the southern pine seedlings planted in Florida are sourced from the Cooperative Forestry Genetics Research Program (CFGRP) that UF was first part of in 1953.

The pine chemical industry - turpentine – is well known for its historic place in Florida and in this area, and it continues to survive and evolve.

“Not only was it the very foundation in which, particularly here in Florida, the forest industry was based – the turpentine industry,” Baker said. “In those days, it was a very labor-intensive process. But a lot of people are still surprised to learn that pine chemicals are still important today because we’re doing research on how to turn it into jet fuel.

“It’s pretty impressive to think about it having that long and consistent history.”

Through grants, Baker says the SFRC leverages every donated dollar into $6 of funding.