CARBONDALE, Ill. — While enrollment at Southern Illinois University has been dropping over the past few years, SIU’s College of Agricultural Sciences is a success story. One reason for that is its prestigious forestry department.

The department, which boasts more than 200 undergraduate students, is one of the top forestry programs in the nation.

The university’s location borders the Shawnee National Forest, Illinois’ only national forest. That provides a unique national laboratory of sorts for students.

“The glacial plain stopped just south of Carbondale,” said Jim Zaczek, department chairman. “We’re at this interesting confluence of what they call physiographic regions, which adds to the diversity of landscapes with lots of soils and water types and a fairly high tree species diversity.”

The region includes the Cache River Wetlands, the northernmost cypress and tupelo swamp in the U.S.

“We’re at the southern end of the northern tree species and the northern end of some of the southern tree species, like the bald cypress,” Zaczek said. “We’ve got a lot of interesting diversity here. And it makes for a good classroom to bring students out and do this. In some of our classes, half the time we’re getting on a bus and going to see trees in their native habitats.”

The nature of forestry lends itself to the big picture. Foresters work on a much lengthier timeline than agronomists do.

“Foresters have been pioneers in conservation science. We have to look at things at a very long-term basis,” Zaczek said. “You’re not talking a year-to-year crop. You’re talking 50- to 100-year rotations. What you’re doing now is going to affect the stand decades out.”

By total enrollment, SIU’s forestry department is among the top 10 in the country and in the top five in undergraduate degrees. But students don’t get lost on campus, according to Zaczek.

“One of the successes of our program is it doesn’t feel that big,” he said. “Our faculty members are all very approachable with open-door policies. We all advise students. We work together. We’re not stuffy old professors. We’re very hands-on.”

As part of its accreditation the department did a survey in 2010, which showed that about 90 percent of alumni were working full-time in a natural resource forestry job or in seasonal jobs in forestry and natural resources.

Forestry students find employment in a number of areas. The extent of the program’s diversity isn’t always appreciated, according to Zaczek.

“A main misconception is that we’re a narrow area. We’re actually very broad area,” he said. “We’re really managing whole landscapes. Some students are interested in producing timber, but that’s just a small amount of what we do and what our students end up doing.

“We’re not just park rangers, though our students do that, as well. There are all kinds of natural resources-related fields. They involve wildlife, people and communities. We’re even in law enforcement a bit. We’re multidimensional in the kinds of things we do.”

The department offers a number of specializations other than recreation, including hydrology and resources management. Students also learn about agroforestry and silvipasture, which entail farming around and between rows of trees.

Wildlife habitat management conservation recently was added to the core curriculum and has proved popular.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in that,” Zaczek said. “(Graduates) can apply to the Wildlife Society and get an associate wildlife biologist certification. That track has all the traditional forestry core classes that are scheduled in with zoology and some other biology courses that are tailored to get this certification. A lot of our students are interested in the habitat side of things. Habitat is one of — if not the — key things in enhancing wildlife.”

Foresters often are the source of misconceptions, Zaczek believes. One is that they seek to protect trees at all costs.

Despite admonitions from Smokey Bear, forest fires are sometimes essential for survival of tree species.

“Fire may not necessarily be a bad thing in all cases,” Zaczek said. “Some (forests) really need fire periodically in order to maintain their health. If they’re not disturbed from time to time they’ll lose the species. They go away.

“Native Americans did a lot of burning. If we don’t do disturbances like fire or harvesting, oaks and hickories go away after a time. There are ecosystem processes that help develop the forests and maintain them. That sometimes requires certain things like fire or selectively cutting trees.”

The department must work to maintain a balance between interest groups with varying positions on what constitutes the best care for the nation’s forested land.

“What our program does try to rely a lot on science, whether the science of the biology side, or wildlife, or social science,” Zaczek said. “We approach it as using solid science to help make decisions. When you’ve got the science on your side, you teach your students to be sound conservationists.”