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Meet the State Forester: Rick Oates, Alabama

Rick Oates
State Forester
Alabama Forestry Commission
Rick Oates Headshot

Our new “Meet the State Forester” blog series introduces readers to the southern state foresters who are collectively responsible for leading the conservation, protection and enhancement of more than 245 million forested acres in the U.S. South. This month, we meet Alabama State Forester, Rick Oates.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Oates received a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and a master’s degree in forestry from Auburn University. He and his wife, Kelly, live in Montgomery and have two adult children, Andrew and Lauren. Before becoming Alabama’s State Forester, he served as forestry division director at the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA), where he was also executive director of the Alabama TREASURE Forest Association and director of the organization’s catfish and wildlife divisions. Prior to that, he served as chief of staff to the Commissioner for the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. He previously held several positions with the Alabama Forestry Association, including forest resource coordinator, regulatory affairs director and executive director of both the Alabama Loggers Council and the Alabama Pulp & Paper Council.

What is your agency’s mission statement?

The mission of the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) is to protect and sustain Alabama’s forest resources using professionally applied stewardship principles and education, ensuring that the state’s forests contribute to abundant timber and wildlife, clean air and water, and a healthy economy.

Why did you become a forester?

I became interested in forestry through the Boy Scouts. That interest grew as I learned more about natural resource management in college and began to understand the possibilities of improving the forest through sound management practices.

In your opinion, what is the biggest issue impacting forest landowners in Alabama and across the southern region?

The biggest issue impacting forest landowners is the availability of strong markets through which to sell timber. Solid markets encourage landowners to better manage their land for multiple objectives.

What is your favorite thing about the forests in Alabama?

Our state is blessed with more than 23 million acres of timberland, and about 93 percent of that belongs to private landowners. This ownership pattern creates a diverse, beautiful forest landscape which benefits the state in many ways.

How is forestry important to the economy of Alabama?

Alabama’s forests are an economic engine providing hundreds of thousands of jobs in our state. Every county is affected by the forest industry, and it is the most important rural manufacturing industry in the state. Alabama is ranked third nationally in the forest product sector’s contribution to state economy. If Alabama’s forest industry disappeared, the state would lose approximately $5.8 billion in total earnings, more than 111,000 jobs and $492 million in taxes.

What is your favorite thing to do while in the forest?

Hike and explore

What are the top five goals for your agency over the next 5-10 years?

  1. Help grow timber markets in the state.
  2. Better serve landowners dependent on our agency.
  3. Recruit and retain the best possible employees for the agency.
  4. Provide better training opportunities for employees.
  5. Continue to improve upon our safety record.

Why are the adoption of forestry BMPs important to the state of Alabama?

They help protect water quality in the state which provides for safe drinking water and outstanding recreational opportunities.

How is prescribed fire important to the landscape of Alabama?

Prescribed fire not only reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires, but also promotes forest health and improves wildlife habitat in Alabama. In addition to the 26,841 acres of prescribed burns conducted by AFC personnel last year, the agency issued 13,001 prescribed burn permits resulting in a total of 1,019,483 acres being burned across the state.

What is your favorite tree species?

Yellow poplar!

How do partnerships play a role in wildfire response in Alabama?

Partnerships are critical. We work closely with the 1,000 volunteer fire departments in the state to help fight wildfires. Without their support, our resources could not stretch far enough to do the job with which we are tasked.

What is your favorite native Alabama animal?

Forest fragmentation – as landowners sell or pass on their property, the parcels become smaller and harder to manage./

Smokey Bear or Woodsy Owl?

Smokey, of course!

What is one thing you want people to know about AFC?

The many things our agency does to help keep people and property safe in Alabama.

What is the best thing about being the Alabama State Forester?

Meeting and working with Alabama’s landowners to help them better manage the land that God has entrusted to them.