Jim Gresh '22 Takes an Ecological Approach to the Forest Industry

File Under: Outcomes

Some students come to college with a few classes completed through their high school college credit plus program, or perhaps even an associate’s degree as the reward for their pre-undergrad hard work. Jim Gresh arrived at Malone with a more substantial background and career.

“I went to Carnegie Mellon University for electrical engineering, and my professional life prior to this chapter was working with the Timken company. But I learned I didn’t want to be an engineer because I was enjoying the operations side of things,” said Gresh. “I could see there were so many aspects of business I didn’t understand, so I went to business school at Harvard to focus more on finance and accounting.”

Clearly unafraid to chart his own course, Gresh came to Malone with his own goals in mind. 

“When my adviser, Dr. Jason Courter, and I were talking early on about where I wanted to go with this degree. He brought up conservation ecology; it’s a program focused on caring for the environment and creation through conservation, preservation, and restoration,” he said. “It’s a self-defined degree, and the study of ecology is one way to study biology. We put together the curriculum and it fits really well with Malone’s zoo and wildlife biology program.” 

So the question naturally arises; why would an engineer and business graduate want to study ecology? 

“This whole journey started after my wife and I bought some land near Atwood Lake. We always had fun at Atwood Lake and we bought this big piece of forested land as a family hub,” said Gresh. “I went to a steel industry conference out in Colorado while working at Timken, and the keynote speaker was from the federal bank doing a deep dive analysis about what would be affecting the steel industry in the future. At the very end of his session he changed the topic to  investing in timber. I had just bought the property and thought I should look into it.”

After purchasing this land, Gresh started his company, Boone Road Enterprises, which now manages five forests through southeastern Ohio.

“We invest in timberlands, and our primary objective is improving the ecology of timberlands while still profiting. The company has existed for 10 years now. We did our first harvest seven years ago,” said Gresh.

Through this first harvest Gresh gained valuable insight into the land he had recently bought.

“People were always writing to me to say they would harvest our timber, but then when they saw it, they said it was 'too young to harvest, call me in 20 years.' I knew someone from church who had been into forestry, and I asked him to come over and teach me about my forest,” he said. “Eventually I asked if we could ever harvest here. He said yes and designed a harvest which we put out for bid. I made some money and was shocked! I walked through the forest after the harvest and it was more beautiful than before the harvest! I didn’t really notice any substantial damage, so I started looking into harvesting and the various approaches to the process.” 

This journey through his own forest sparked Gresh’s eventual fire for ecology. 

“Somewhere in this whole process I started to think about ecology, and, well, here we are! I saw the benefit of further study, not the least of which being the proper care of our forests,” said Gresh.

This drive, to care for and maintain forests, led Gresh to the study of European Forestry; both the base knowledge and the migration of practices to North America. 

“Europe devastated their forests as badly as the US, but did so 200 years earlier. Subsequently, they figured out that it wasn’t sustainable to be harvesting the way they had been. What initially arose was a system of  total optimization, but in the last half century, Europe has turned to a gentle form of harvesting that utilizes natural processes, encourages complex forest characteristics, and holistically cares for the ecosystem,” said Gresh. “It's hard to say why this hasn’t caught on earlier in America, but in the last decades there have been groups that have formed in the US with the same ideals as European forestry.”

Gresh has been able to take the information and guidance he gained at Malone back to his own company for research purposes, working with his adviser, Dr. Courter. 

“Together we’ve published two papers: a perspective paper about the history of these forestry methods, and the second is based on our research forest near Atwood Lake. We’ve divided up that research forest into 15 management units monitoring a variety of data, and we did a study of birds; what diversity of species we see, abundance, and how the European approach we’ve been doing for years impacts the bird population as opposed to the US approach,” he said. “The data shows that, even though this is a limited study, a lot of birds were attracted to specific habitats that they weren’t previously thought to have loved. The implication is that we don’t need to do clear cuts to make room for shrubby habitats that birds were thought to love, but that all types of birds can be attracted to these forests with old growth characteristics which are maintained through the European method. Our research forest also showed a much higher presence of birds classified as having a high conservation concern status. This forestry method seems to be benefiting some of the more threatened species.  ”

With a sizable operation and lofty goals, Gresh was resolute to come to Malone for his degree and to gain expertise. 

“In addition to caring for the ecology of our forests, I would like to influence the forest industry towards a more ecological approach. As I conducted more research I quickly felt that if I tried to go the forestry track it would be a very tough hill to climb. I didn’t want to play around in this second chapter of my career and I knew this track at Malone would be more effective,” he said. “Malone is local for me; I know the name, I know people here, and I know graduates from the zoo and wildlife biology program who are doing extremely well. I recognized that Malone has a great program, and as I talked to more advisers and connected with Dr. Courter, I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

With a Malone degree now under his belt, Gresh hopes to both grow his company and be a voice for responsible, sustainable forestry across the entire industry. 

“What I’ve learned at Malone I’m applying in my work constantly. The degree will also make an impact on the legitimacy of my voice as well; I have some speaking engagements lined up and I hope to publish more papers,” said Gresh. “I am now  a conservation ecologist, and this degree gives a certain amount of credibility to my perspective, work, and research. Ultimately, the ways the world is changing and the challenges that we’re encountering shows me that people are caring more for the world and the environment. I hope we can be an important part in that.”