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The importance of experience

From New Zealand Tree grower August 2009

Peter Koch was a most productive forest products scientist. His publications include a series on the southern pines and lodgepole pine – known as contorta pine in New Zealand. Although a forest products scientist Peter was always understanding of forest growers and had an in-depth knowledge of forest management. Peter and I exchanged letters and I met him on several occasions in North America. Our last meeting was in June 1997 when he told me he had terminal cancer and would soon die. After he died I wrote to his wife and she replied that before he passed away Peter had asked her to send me a book he had printed privately.

The book Elers Koch – forty years a forester soon arrived. What an insight. Being a forester’s son explains Peter’s interest in and knowledge of forest management as well as his sympathy with forest growers.

In 1899 Elers Koch aged 19 was working for the Bureau of Forestry when he met its chief, Gifford Pinchot, later to become the first chief of the newly created Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Pinchot’s magnetic personality and enthusiasm so influenced Elers that he took a masters degree in forestry at Yale. On graduating in 1903 he joined Gifford Pinchot as a forester and spent his whole career with the US Forest Service.This was mostly on forests in the western States but sometimes in the Washington DC head office. Retiring in 1944 he subsequently wrote this book which was only published privately by his son.

Elers was proud to be one of Gifford Pinchot’s ‘young men’. He wrote, ‘I often think what a wonderful thing it was to have a government bureau with nothing but young men in it.’ Yet in 1935 he published The passing of the Lola Trial. In this article Elers was very critical of the US Forest Service policy of fighting all forest fires.This was a policy undoubtedly first developed by the young foresters in the US Forest Service.

I took from Elers’ writings two important lessons. First is the importance of charismatic leadership in attracting competent staff. Secondly, for organisations to have a mix of young and old staff – the young keen to change things and the mature to balance the young enthusiasm with wisdom that is the result of experience.

This is in real contrast to the current thinking where government departments appear to exist to await directions from politicians. Have we learned so little of why there were so many policy successes in the past?

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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