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Passion for forestry: New Dickinson forester talks wildland firefighting, working along the coasts, more

Blake Johnson sat for an exclusive interview with The Dickinson Press this week to talk about his new position with the City of Dickinson as the city's forester. Though Johnson has worked his way from the West Coast to the East Coast, he's starting a new pathway on the Western Edge — bringing an experienced perspective to the role of city forester.

Blake Johnson, pictured above, is the new forester for the City of Dickinson.
Blake Johnson, pictured above, is the new forester for the City of Dickinson. Johnson comes originally from Wisconsin and has worked throughout the United States, from wildland firefighting to holding a senior forester position.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON — Already in his first month as the new forester, Blake Johnson is bringing a different perspective to the City of Dickinson. From working as a wildland firefighter on the West Coast to exploring vast forests of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, Johnson brings years of forestry experience.

Johnson started with the City of Dickinson on March 7, and previously worked in forestry management in Duluth and northwestern Wisconsin, along the shores of Lake Superior.

Prior to moving to the Western Edge, Johnson was working for the State of Wisconsin as a senior forester in forest management, which entailed big-scale timber sales and timber management as well as wildland fire responsibilities. Despite being raised in Wisconsin, Johnson has been fortunate enough to work throughout the United States.

“Whenever I talk to people, I say that I worked from the West Coast to the East Coast,” Johnson said, adding that he worked as a forester in North Carolina and a wildland firefighter in California. “I liked the East Coast… but that western culture, there’s something about the mountains and all that kind of stuff that is amazing.”

Originally, Johnson set out to study business. However, right around the time Johnson graduated, the Great Recession was in place and jobs were scarce. So he ended up traveling, working as a wildland firefighter.

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He then went back to the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, which is known for its prominent forestry program, and graduated in 2013. But he decided to work one more year in the wildland firefighting field, achieving a level of success that was always a dream for him. Then in 2014, he landed his first forestry job in North Carolina.

After getting married, Johnson took a position a year later back in his home state of Wisconsin. For the next five years, his schedule proved to be “very rigorous,” especially with starting a family.

Blake Johnson is pictured at Glacier National Park in Montana in September of 2018.
Blake Johnson is pictured at Glacier National Park in Montana in September of 2018. Johnson and his crew were traveling back from Washington, where they were assisting in wildfire suppression efforts. During this time, Johnson was employed as a senior forester by the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Contributed / Blake Johnson

“When I was in Minnesota and Wisconsin, it was very — I don’t want to use the term lonely — but you’re in vast forests. You are working with landowners, but it’s just a different aspect of it. Here, everything is a little bit more close-knit with working with homeowners,” he said.

Finding a more “family-friendly” position was right up his alley, and Dickinson, North Dakota, was on the radar for Johnson as he had family connections who moved out West during the oil boom.

“I don’t know if I want to use the word fate, but everything pulled us to be here and everything fell into place really easy for us and the transition has been really nice,” he said.

As a forester, Johnson expressed his passion for trees. However, his position deals also with education and outreach, which may include looking at tree health and working with homeowners or landowners.

“Everybody has questions about the health of their trees, the maintenance of their trees, there’s a right and a wrong way to prune. So it’s just having that outreach, providing education and building relationships with homeowners and then how to better care for their property to see different signs if they have trees with disease,” he said.

One of the main issues Johnson foresees is Dutch elm disease. The North Dakota State Tree is the American elm, and they are prominent in Dickinson. Johnson noted that Dutch elm disease, which is caused by an invasive fungal pathogen and leads to wilt and tree death, is a “pretty difficult disease to control and to maintain.” Education and awareness of the impacts Dutch elm disease can cause is vital in prevention efforts, he added.

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In Wisconsin, Johnson dealt with emerald ash borer — an exotic beetle, native to Asia, that was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in 2002. This invasive species lay their eggs in bark crevices on ash trees and do damage as larvae eat their way out of the bark, burrowing deep into the trunk to insulate themselves against the cold, according to a New York Times article published in 2014. Though emerald ash borer has not been detected in North Dakota, it is predicted that it will reach the state in the coming years, he added.

“And so, being aware of that, being proactive in preparing for it if it does come or having that mindset that it will probably be here gives us hopefully a leg forward in battling it or preventing it,” Johnson said. “So having some experiences with it, that helps me prepare for understanding how it’s transmitted (and) how it’s transferred through the state in different areas.”

In an urban setting, there are different concerns, diseases and hazards that a forester deals with compared to a wilderness setting, such as tree assessments. Some concerns could be if the tree is or could be harmful to humans, if roots are exposed in a yard and a homeowner clips them with a lawn mower or if a tree has an underground root system that could lead to sidewalk damage.

“Even like this morning, there was a vehicle accident downtown that hit a tree. So I received a call to go check on the health and the condition of the tree after knowing that the individual was alright... I didn’t really ever have that issue in my career before on a vehicle hitting a tree and checking on the health of the tree,” he said. “So it’s a little bit different in that aspect, but it’s fun and it widens your knowledge and your more broad-based understanding of what hurts and affects species of trees.”

Forestry is evolving, Johnson said, explaining that the introduction of new technology and applications will help with forest management and inventory.

“When you think about Dickinson and being a prairie state, there aren’t a lot of trees. But once you have an inventory and look at what you have, there are a lot of trees. So it’s understanding that a little bit and knowing that there is a lot of care that goes behind it as well,” he remarked. “Developing more (and) taking initiatives is something that I want to look into a little bit more with the program.”

For the past year, Johnson, his wife and 3-year-old son have fallen in love with Dickinson. He hopes to bring a different perspective and fresh energy to the role of city forester.

“... There’s always a need for trees. They’re along the river ways or some of these areas, you’ll see native species of trees grow… There’s always a need for vegetation, shrubs (and) flowers,” he noted. “As we continue to develop areas, it's good to build and expand. But it's also good to do that as well with the trees. So having that outreach (and) that education is very helpful and needed.”

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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