State forester strives to leave a legacy of acres of healthy trees

Sunday, August 13, 2017 | by Paula Burkes  The Oklahoman

Likely due to the first line in its state song, Oklahoma largely is regarded as a plains state. But in fact, ancient forests — including 200-year-old trees and 13 ecoregions with differing elevations, climate and moisture patterns — comprise some 27 percent of the state.

That's the message State Forester George Geissler stresses in talks to Rotary Clubs and other public groups. The Forestry Services division of the state Agriculture Department is all about managing national resources, Geissler said.

“From dealing with everything from trees and critters to water production, we want our forests to be healthy and productive, so that we can ensure they'll remain for years to come,” he said.

Geissler has worked nearly 30 years as a forester throughout Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho.

He joined Oklahoma Forestry Services in 2006, and since February 2011 has served as director of the division, which employs 135 including some 100 firefighters whom are lent to other states when they're not fighting fires in Oklahoma.

From his offices at 2800 N Lincoln Blvd., Geissler, 52, sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:

Q: Tell us about your roots.

A: The name Geissler is German, but I have heavy Italian roots on both sides. I grew up in the low-rent Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. My mom was a teacher before she had me and my sister, who's three years younger. Later, she worked as a substitute teacher. My father read water meters for the city and did every other odd job he could, from repairing engines to filling tankers with natural gas for Tenneco. Today, my parents live north of New Orleans and my sister teaches math and science at an elementary school there. A number of our family lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. I talk to my parents every morning on my commute from Norman to the office and check in with my sister about once a week.

Q: What were the highlights of your childhood?

A: As kids, my sister and I would collect pop bottles and redeem them for cash toward the family fund. And my father and I before school every morning would catch and sell fish and crabs. I attended parochial military schools. At 5 feet, 6 inches, and 120 pounds, I knew I wasn't going to play the football my father had. Instead, I ran for the school cross-country team, including 5Ks, 10Ks and even some marathons. That's also when a fellow student from Great Britain lent me a road bike and introduced me to the sport of cycling. I've been running and cycling every since.

Q: What led you to pursue forestry as a career?

A: I decided at age 11 or 12, on one of those hell family vacations where everyone piles in the car and drives across the country. My dad met a forest ranger in Colorado, who took me to a logging site, showed me a prescribed burn, checked a crew measuring trees and more. As a city boy, I thought his was the coolest job on earth. So, when it came time for college, I chose to major in forestry at LSU. During the week, I'd bartend in Baton Rouge and work for the LSU forestry department, and on the weekends, I'd unload trucks and tend bar in New Orleans. After my freshman year, I worked my summers as a firefighter in Idaho and loved being outdoors and the physical and intellectual challenge of it. Upon graduation, I went to work for the United States Forest Service on the Boise National Forest as both a wildland firefighter with the Boise Hotshots and a silviculturalist on the Idaho City Ranger District.

Q: What brought you to Oklahoma?

A: In 1988, I took a corporate forester job with Public Service Co. of Oklahoma (PSO) — which was part of the Dallas-based Central and Southwest Services electric utility holding company — where I, among other things, handled transmission line clearance in the wake of Oklahoma's ice storms and high winds. Over my nine years with the company, I advanced to director of forest management on 475,000 acres of company-owned timberlands and vegetation management on company electrical system infrastructure located in the U.S., Brazil and England. PSO paid for me to get my MBA at Harvard. That was before the internet, so I'd go to Boston for two weeks to a month to study, and then come back and work. It took me two and half years to earn my degree. When Ohio-based American Electric Power bought out Central and Southwest Services, I was tapped to help consolidate the two companies. Ultimately, I eliminated my own job because American Electric already had the same thing.

Q: You worked for yourself for nine years. Tell us about that.

A: When I left American Electric, Bea and I decided to start our own consulting company: Forestry West LLC. We figured we could live anywhere we wanted, so we decided on Tucson. Bea ran the back office and our home front, while I typically would hop a plane most Mondays and be gone through Friday or Saturday, consulting in San Diego, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado on forest management, community wildfire protection planning, and wildland fire planning and prevention. After we landed a big client in Los Alamos, New Mexico, we moved there so I'd see more of Bea and the kids. When we sold the firm in 2005, we had a staff of 80 supporting clients in 18 western states. We sold to move back to Oklahoma near Bea's parents who had health issues.

Q: What do you like most about the forestry profession?

A: There's a strong sense of legacy. The state of Oklahoma has a seed production plant in Idabel and a nursery in Goldsby where we grow millions of seedlings to plant in acres that have been cut over by lumber companies or in pastures landowners want to convert back to forests for wildlife. I won't live long enough to see the end of the cycle of the trees we plant.