By Alvin Benn
||Linda Casey, recently named Alabama’s new State Forester, doesn’t really need these magazines to learn about trees in the state. She’s worked in Baldwin and Dallas counties during the past 30 years.
Forests have fascinated Linda Casey from the time she was a little girl in rural Virginia, but she never dreamed that, one day, she would become a trailblazer in her chosen profession. It happened a few weeks ago when she took the oath of office as Alabama State Forester.
Casey is the first woman to hold such a responsible position not only in Alabama, but throughout the Deep South. Selected by the Alabama Forestry Commission to oversee the state’s vast forests from the Tennessee Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, Casey is devoting her first weeks getting acquainted with the people she will work with and serve.
She won’t need much time to get into the swing of things because Alabama is no stranger to Casey, not after having served as area wood procurement manager for International Paper Co. in Dallas County for three years. She also worked for IP in Baldwin County.
The last thing she needs to be reminded of is her historic appointment. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on the subject. "I just don’t see it as being important," said Casey, who assumed her new position on Feb. 1. "I understand what has happened, but I don’t think about it. The important thing is doing a good job and that’s what I’m concentrating on."
Members of the selection committee, led by Auburn University professor Richard Brinker, have no doubts Casey will do a splendid job.
"She is a very experienced, confident and well-respected forester who will provide proven leadership to the 320 employees of the Alabama Forestry Commission," said Brinker.
Casey’s experience obviously impressed the selection committee that interviewed her and 25 other applicants.
Her responsible positions at IP for more than three decades was more than enough to convince the selection committee that she had the right stuff to do a job that had always been given to men.
"Linda has a depth and breadth of forestry acumen and has shown during her career assignments to be exceptionally good at planning, organizing and a good motivator of people," Brinker said. "Her assignments have provided situations to exhibit managerial courage and necessity to make difficult decisions."
Supervising a large staff and a $34 million annual budget is challenging enough, but Casey has another huge responsibility—overseeing forests that equal the size of Indiana.
More than 70 percent of the land in Alabama is filled with trees—seen by many as green gold because of what they represent.
Alabama’s forestry statistics are mind-boggling. For instance, 4,000 trees are now growing for every man, woman and child in the state. That comes out to 15 billion trees—enough to build and furnish nearly four million houses.
Pine trees cover much of Alabama and Casey got to know them pretty well when she worked for IP just outside Selma in the early 90s. Hardwoods dominate rural Virginia where Casey grew up and the sight of so many pines had her realizing the enormity of Alabama’s forests.
As a little girl, Linda Shumate’s primary job was to call in the cows for her mother to milk while she and her sister slept. "We always had at least 20 milk cows and she did it by hand," Casey said of her mother. "Then she’d get me and my sister up and ready for school."
After milking the cows and fixing breakfast, Casey’s mother left for work at a furniture factory. Her daughters soon learned that nothing is given without work to earn it.
In addition to calling in the cows, Casey also helped her dad cut wood for the fireplace and stove.
When she was old enough to get a job outside her non-paying chores at home, she worked for 25 cents an hour washing hair at a beauty shop. Later, she went to work in the textile industry. Those jobs convinced her that it wasn’t what she wanted to do for a living.
Her way out of a textile mill was provided by Virginia Polytechnic Institute, known then as VPI. Today’s it’s just Virginia Tech. Regardless of the name, the school is rated annually as one of the best in the country.
Casey enrolled as a pre-med student and worked as a nurse’s aide at a local hospital to help pay for her education. She eventually switched to wildlife management because she felt it was something she’d enjoy more. "I couldn’t stand being cooped up inside all day," Casey said. "I knew that would happen if I went into medicine."
The long walks she and her cousins would take through the woods near their houses remain fresh in her mind, especially the sights, sounds and smell of the great outdoors.
When Casey finished college, her first and only job before being hired as Alabama’s State Forester was with IP in Baldwin County, which is larger than Rhode Island.
"It’s amazing how much forested land there is in Alabama," she said. "Baldwin County is primarily woods." So is much of the rest of Alabama, which remains a rural state even though it has become much more industrialized with the arrival of the automobile industry as well as continued space-related projects in Huntsville.
Timberland in Alabama covers nearly 23 million acres—accounting for 70 percent of the total amount of land area in the state.
Next to Georgia, Alabama has the most commercial forestland in the country and it provides jobs for 65,000 people. Alabama also produces more than $13 billion in products each year.
Conservation is important to those who oversee Alabama’s forests. For every tree that is harvested, five more are planted. It takes years for them to reach maturation, but clear-cutting and abandonment practices are not being followed in Alabama.
Experience is always an important factor when leadership vacancies are being filled and Casey was impressive from the moment her credentials were examined by the selection committee headed by Brinker.
Casey’s priorities are to make sure Alabama’s forests are properly managed, protected and efficiently supervised.
"Right now I’m trying to get ahead of the curve," she said. "If you come into any new job with preconceived ideas, you can get into trouble."
That’s why her first steps will be to meet with employees and explain to them her vision and expectations for forestry’s future in Alabama.
"I plan to do a gap investigation to know that we’re doing the things we’re supposed to do," she said. "The only way to do that is to go into every part of the state."
Whenever the pressures were growing or she needed guidance, Casey didn’t have far to look because her husband, John, was by her side.
Casey met her husband at the University of Southern Mississippi where both were working on master’s degrees. He’s a social worker with plenty of experience in human nature and that’s one of the things she likes about him.
"You look back on your life and think about all the decisions you’ve made," said the mother of three. "The day I met my husband, I started going down the road in the right direction. He’s everything you’d want in a human being and a person."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.