Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Taking it outside

January/February 2021 California Bountiful magazine

An Eagle Scout's love of the outdoors led him to a forestry career

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As a registered professional forester, Matthew Bissell gets to call the forest his office. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Growing up in Southern California, Matthew Bissell followed in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather—with encouragement from his grandmother—and conquered the Boy Scouts' toughest challenge: achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. That experience, plus countless hiking and camping trips, inspired him to pursue a career that allows him to be outdoors. Bissell, who now lives in Santa Clara County with his wife and children, consults with private landowners to harvest timber for use in home-building materials, decking, fencing and trim.

Tell us about your career. As a registered professional forester, licensed by the state, I assist forest property owners in writing timber harvest plans, which are environmental documents that allow them to cut timber on their property. I interface with the state agencies, work with the timber operators that do the logging and mark every tree that gets cut with paint. Part of the job is also to ensure the operation goes right, and that includes adding erosion control, roads and trails.

How do you consider wildlife and endangered species when writing a timber harvest plan? California Department of Fish and Wildlife participates in our plan review, a process under the California Environmental Quality Act, which is the state policy for environmental protection. Through this process, we're protecting everything from the Pacific fisher—which is a cute, weasel-like animal the size of a house cat—to the red-legged frog that is about the size of your fist. In consultation with biologists and botanists, we may be asked to leave a buffer in the woods to prevent us from operating in an area where there is a particular species.

How does drought worsen tree mortality? We have always had issues related to insects, such as the bark beetle in the forests, but the drought exacerbated the situation. The trees were stressed and the bark beetle population exploded. We had hundreds of millions of trees that died. Bark beetles get attracted to trees when they are stressed and eat the cambium layer, which is between the bark and the wood. The beetles introduce fungus that usually stains the wood and reduces its quality.

A native of Southern California, Bissell now lives in Santa Clara County. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

How do our forests connect to our watersheds? Our forested areas are basically our largest watersheds in the state. We need the snowpack in the Sierra and the forest to provide the water that comes down into the Sacramento River to supply the delta infrastructure that pumps water all over the state. The better the forest is, the better the chances are that the snowpack will infiltrate and come out as nice, clean water.

Do you take part in firefighting efforts? Colleagues of mine were directing crews on the Creek Fire (which started in September and burned mostly in the Sierra National Forest). I wish I would have been out there. I have participated in workshops on controlled burning; that's something I hope to do to broaden my horizons. Controlled burning involves setting planned fires to maintain forest health and to prevent further catastrophic wildfires. We need to do a better job of managing our forests to prevent these fires.

Bissell uses digital mapping to identify and mark trees to be harvested. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

What led you to a forestry career? I'm an Eagle Scout. I camped all over California, so that was probably the biggest influence. I enjoy being outdoors rather than being indoors. And after attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, focusing on environmental management or recycling, I got an internship and soon realized I wanted to switch to forestry, so I could actually go outside instead of being stuck inside a high-rise office building. That job influenced me to search out something different, which I found in forestry.

What is required to become a registered professional forester? Usually, it's a combination of a four-year degree and three years of experience under another registered professional forester before you can take a day-long state exam that certifies you to practice forestry in California. You can have an associate degree in forestry, but it requires more years of experience and the schools must be accredited by the Society of American Foresters.

How are trees selected for harvest? It has to do with logging capability, damage to individual trees, where trees are relative to each other, size of the trees and a lot of different things. The cutting and selecting of trees in the forest is key to starting a good timber operation. I enjoy returning to an area that we've worked and seeing the redwoods re-sprouting and the forest in a healthy condition.

What timber species are being harvested in the state and for what purposes? I manage redwood mainly here on the coast, and that species is mainly used in fencing, decking and outdoor furniture. In the Sierra, what is harvested is mostly pine, white fir and incense cedar. Fir is normally a strong wood, so it is used in construction for framing of buildings. Pine is usually for trim and moulding, and cedar is used in fencing and closets.

How do you give back to your community? I try to make time to give back to the community. There's a really good statewide academic program for high school students called the Forestry Challenge that I've taken part in a few times. Students learn about ecology and management of forested landscapes and topics such as wildfire, insects and forest health. I also helped critique mock timber harvest plans for Cal Poly students who are finishing their degrees.

Christine Souza

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