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Josh Birnbaum

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International Year of the Forests Photography Fellowship (PHOTOS)

Posted: 11/01/11 01:00 AM ET

This summer I was fortunate enough to spend seven weeks on a photographic forest escapade. In June, I was chosen to be the International Year of Forests Photography Fellow. The fellowship was co-sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters and the National Network of Forest Practitioners with support from the NASF Foundation.

For years, I've had an interest in photography and its impact on our culture, in environmental issues of sustainability, and in social justice. The fellowship was an incredible opportunity to combine my interests and highlight important forestry and human issues on a national scale, in a year dedicated to the forests that sustain our existence. With the wind blowing across my face and some bluegrass music blasting on the radio, I hit the road in search of the elusive soul of the American forest.

Six states were on the itinerary for the trip. In West Virginia, I met with researchers trying to find a solution to the blight that has decimated the American chestnut. I spent time at youth forestry camps documenting how burgeoning foresters are learning essential skills in working with trees. In Texas, I spent some more time focusing on youth and environmental education with the Latino Legacy program based in Houston, but also documented issues relating to drought and fire. Missouri brought on a new challenge: seeing Joplin for the first time after the devastating May tornado. It was shocking to see how much the loss of trees affects a community. But it was also gratifying to witness the efforts of urban foresters and citizens working towards repairing the city and reforesting the landscape.

South Dakota brought me face to face with the mountain pine beetle epidemic, as well as with people working in the state's vital forest products industry. In Montana, the focus was on state trust lands and how sustainable management of these landscapes benefits the public school system. Wildfires were also rampant during my later summer stay there, and capturing images of the men and women from state and federal agencies that fight fires was thrilling. The last stop was Maryland, where I focused on the ways forests sustain public health including water quality and watershed management, both inland and on the Chesapeake Bay. Ironically, it rained on me the whole time in Maryland. My camera suffered from the humidity early in the trip, but I was lucky enough to get a rental from Baltimore, where I saw again the influence of trees on the quality of life of urban dwellers.

When I was out in the woods, I was able to fully appreciate what was around me. I spent my days talking to landowners, foresters, and researchers, giving me an intuitive understanding of how the forests sustain our lives. Then I would spend a quiet night alone in that same forest. It was solitary yet there was so much around me.

As a whole, the experience was transformative. I gained a first-hand education in forestry and environmental resource management; I began relationships with people and places all over the country; and--perhaps most importantly--I became more aware of how the Earth's natural functions fit into my infinitesimal existence.

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