January 11, 2021 |Kevin Harnish | Forests

You Can't Uproot This Forester

I grew up on a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, in a region where land use change is a reality. When I was young, my parents had the forethought to place a conservation easement on their land, ensuring their property would remain a working farm forever and not be developed. The capital they received from the easement allowed them to continue farming the land and expand their operation, and today they still grow corn and soybeans and collect eggs from cage-free chickens. I saw the value of that decision, and it resonated with me before I even really knew about conservation.

My parents also signed up for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and aims to improve sensitive riparian areas, which are areas bordering water sources. When my parents signed their first 15-year CREP contract in 2000, I was allowed to take the day off from middle school to help plant trees in an area surrounding a tributary of Stewart Run, a small creek in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. These restoration efforts aim to slow down runoff and reduce erosion that deposits excess loads of sediment, nitrates, and phosphates in the water, because improving water quality upstream is critical to restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

The Harnish family farm. Photo courtesy Kevin Harnish.

My upbringing on the farm contributed to my career path in conservation. I was drawn to working outdoors, and I went to forestry school initially thinking I would become a field forester. While I was studying at North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources, The Conservation Fund invited students to learn about their organization, so I went to check out their Chapel Hill office (and eat free pizza). When I learned more about the Working Forest Fund® model I was really intrigued. I was impressed by the mission and model—the ability to optimize conservation value efficiently at scale. The Conservation Fund’s dual charter of land conservation and sustainable economic development resonated with my own family’s experience in conservation.

1 11 21 Minnesota Heritage Forest MN 610 c Jay BrittainMinnesota Heritage ForestPhoto by Jay Brittain.

I was fortunate to start working at the Fund in 2015 as an intern. I was responsible for building forest optimization models that project sustainable harvest schedules. Building these models and sharing the data with our forest operations team provides valuable information that ensures all our forestry practices are sustainable and create a data-driven schedule that optimizes when and where we should be harvesting.

Now I’m an official staff member, and my team and I handle a lot of complex data—keeping track of inventory information when we purchase a property, estimating annual growth and tracking management activity. I do a fair amount of mapping—estimating the conservation impact of our program in miles streams, acres of wetlands, and tons of carbon. I help our team build financial models at the project and portfolio level to inform land purchases and sale decisions. I like thinking about management problems and the challenge of building models that can improve our purchase and management decisions.

I also help manage five reforestation projects in the lower Mississippi River Valley by collecting and evaluating data to make sure the trees are doing well (kind of like planting trees as a kid on my parents’ farm, just on a much larger scale). This work keeps these projects in line with the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards.

1 11 21 Rouge Park MI c Ivan LaBianca 120161019 9 4Photo by Ivan LaBianca.


The pandemic has prevented me from traveling to forests or meeting with colleagues, conservation partners and forest managers, so that has been a bit of a challenge. We work in 17 different states, each with different silvicultural systems, forest cover, geophysical and ecological attributes. I miss being able to meet with experts steeped in regionally specific forestry knowledge, and the experience of learning something new every time I’m in the field.

Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society such as wildlife habitat, timber, water resources, restoration, and recreation on a sustainable basis.


Our team as a whole has adapted tremendously during this time. The work must go on, and the pace has not slowed down at all. We have more Zoom calls like everyone else, and we’ve made a point to schedule a regular “happy hour” call to check in about life in general.

1 11 21 WFF happy hourSome members of the Working Forest Fund team.

On a personal level, the pandemic has made me more aware of how important and invaluable our public land is. Our open spaces for recreation are such a haven for my family, providing us with the ability to spend time safely in a different environment. Just as I enjoy walking around my parents’ farm with my family and seeing the trees I helped plant 20 years ago, it is wonderful to see people enjoying our parks and forests. That’s what I love—recognizing the long-term impact of what we can do today. The importance of conserving these places is more vital now than ever.

Did you miss the previous three posts in our series? You can catch up now:

#1: A Forester’s Work is Never Done… Even During a Pandemic
by Olivia Fiori, Forest Technician

“I feel comforted knowing that as our work proceeds, we are continuing to transform the landscape into a healthier ecosystem, while stimulating and keeping the local economy engaged during a global pandemic.”
– Olivia Fiori


#2: Conservation During the Pandemic: Renewed Appreciation for Land and Open Space
by Clint Miller, Midwest Project Director

“The pandemic has presented us with opportunities to rethink how we do business… One great development is that people are having a renewed appreciation for the land, and so many people are out there accessing the outdoors for relief and recreation.”
– Clint Miller


#3: Strengthening Conservation and Community Advocacy Through Parks During COVID-19
by Stacia Turner, Parks with Purpose Urban Conservation Associate

“We have been challenged with answering the question of how to keep people engaged considering COVID-19 and also civil unrest. Green spaces are more important than ever before, because they contribute to our mental and physical health and well-being. How do you address the needs of the community when there are ongoing questions about how to do that safely?”
– Stacia Turner

Written by

Kevin Harnish

Kevin Harnish is Manager of Portfolio Analysis for the Working Forest Fund® based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kevin joined the Fund in 2015, and focuses on valuing timberland, modeling forest growth, discounted cash flow analysis, and modeling carbon sequestration. Kevin earned a BA of Philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Master of Forestry from North Carolina State University. Kevin is a member of the Society of American Foresters. He enjoys mountain biking, hiking, and spending time outdoors with his family.