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Getting to Know the New State Forester

October 27, 2023 12:00 AM

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​Seth Cassell was recently appointed Pennsylvania State Forester and Director of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry.

This development is a culmination of a lifetime of passion for forests, public service, leadership, and experience.

Seth offers some insights about his background and new position:

What is your background for this position?

I have spent 23 years working in a variety of roles in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry.

I started as a field forester in Gallitzin State Forest, where I managed both state forest land and assisted private forest landowners and municipalities in the region.

I later joined the central office team in Harrisburg as the state’s urban forestry coordinator, which then lead to the bureau’s first communications section.

I spent most of my career as Chief of the Forest Resource Planning and Information Division, where DCNR worked on cross disciplinary efforts, including resource and strategic planning, forest certification, land acquisitions, and monitoring shale gas development activity.

I also must mention my 30 years of service in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard as a pilot and most recently as a squadron commander.

The leadership experience and perspective I have gained in that service has been invaluable to me.

Who were some of the folks in the forestry profession that you admire and were mentors to you?

Seth Cassell woodworking in his workshop

The late Dr. James C. Finley at Penn State was my first mentor in the field. He valued students with diverse backgrounds and sought to bring non-traditional students like me into the profession.

His impact on me and Pennsylvania’s forests and the community around them is immeasurable.

I also learned so much from Dan Devlin, former state forester and my supervisor for 12 years, especially how to empower people to do their work and be stabilizing force in an organization during difficult times.

Most recently, Deputy Secretary John Norbeck has really helped me develop my brand of leadership. He saw the value in my military leadership experience and gave me confidence to bring that side of me to my leadership roles at DCNR.

I also have had the opportunity to work with some top-notch peers who I have learned from, especially assistant directors Matt Keefer and Jason Albright, as well as my predecessor Ellen Shultzabarger.

Mostly, it’s the people I have had the privilege to lead, both at DCNR and the Air National Guard, who have been the best mentors.

I’ve supervised a lot of good people who have pushed me to be better. And when you take a servant leadership approach, you really learn from that -- how you can be the best leader for your people and your organization.

What do you see as your immediate priorities?

There are four priorities that I have begun to communicate more broadly to our team.

First is strengthening our foundations in forest resource management. The challenges and demand are still there for our work in silviculture, fire prevention, forest health and climate resilience, wild plant management and protection and are only getting more complex.

Second, we need to adapt and grow our work, especially around people, in providing diverse recreational opportunities on state forest, but also in connecting with communities in urban forestry and planting riparian buffers.

We need to connect people to the resource, our organization, and the work of conservation. That includes expanding and diversifying the audiences we reach.

Third, we need to work to better align our organization and resources with the challenges we’ll face in the coming decades.

And lastly, but most importantly, we need to invest in our people -- their professional and leadership development.

We need to invest in our team and our partnerships so we can meet the very dynamic and complex challenges that are not only coming the future but are here already.

How are Pennsylvania’s forests positioned for the future?

Pennsylvania is a forest rich state with 59 percent of the land base represented by forests. It is a diverse and resilient forest that provides incalculable values to people -- ecological, social, and economic.

From many perspectives, our forests are positioned well. We have an extremely dedicated and passionate staff in the DCNR Bureau of Forestry who care deeply about managing our forests and ensuring their health and resiliency.

We have many partner organizations that share our commitment to abundant and healthy forests.

The state forest system is dual certified by both the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council.

This certification is a testament to the fact that we are managing our forests to ensure a sustainable future.

What are the opportunities and challenges facing the bureau of forestry?

I think this is a time of tremendous opportunity and growth for forestry. People are signaling in so many ways that they value forests and our work.

More and more communities are recognizing the roles of trees and forests, public lands, trails and recreation in healthy, vibrant communities and economies.

Trees and forests are seen as vital to human health and well-being. They blunt the impacts of climate change by storing carbon.

Forests are so important to our homegrown wood products economy. They are vital to air and water quality.

Forests are as relevant and needed as ever, and people and communities are valuing them in new and important ways.

Of course, the challenges are many as well. We are challenged to maintain health and resilience in a changing climate.

Fire seasons are getting longer and, in some cases, more extensive. Invasive plants and insects continue to frustrate our management efforts.

We need to further our work in recreation planning and management to accommodate changing uses and expectations.

Additionally, workforce recruitment and retention are efforts we need to be more focused on and be more intentional about.

Despite these challenges, overall, I feel very positive about the future of our organization, Penn’s Woods, and our work conserving them.

What is your favorite location in the state forest system?

Seth Cassell kneels in water in fishing overalls holding a caught trout

After spending many years travelling as a pilot in the Air National Guard, my favorite place is home in foothills of Appalachian ridges and valleys.

From our farm in northern Dauphin County, we can see Weiser State Forest and the vista where my wife, Amy, and I went on one of our first dates and hikes together many years ago.

I also feel very deeply connected to the Pine Creek Valley and the Algerine Wild Area, where my grandfather started visiting in the 1930s and later built a hunting cabin in the 1940s.

The Slate Run watershed in Tioga and Tiadaghton State Forests are almost sacred places to me, where I spent a lot of time as a young man fishing for trout, and where I still spend a lot of time fishing and hunting grouse.

Penn’s Creek Wild Area is another place that is very special to me.

There are so many great places to visited in our state forest -- we are truly blessed in Pennsylvania to have this resource in our back yards!

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