Donated photos. Ryan Sparks, 2007 HCC Forest Management Technology graduate first heard about the program when his mom put an article in front of him from “Our State” magazine. The pictures showed students in action out in the field, some in a stream and others in the middle of pine trees. Pictured is Sparks in a group photo just like the ones he saw. John Palmer, instructor at the time, is pictured front center and Sparks is pictured in the center of the back row on a field trip to the Everglades in 2007.

Ryan Sparks, 2007 HCC Forest Management Technology graduate, is stewardship director for the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. He is pictured at Smith Cliffs Preserve in Burke County.

When Ryan Sparks first heard about Haywood Community College’s Forest Management Technology program, he had been out of high school a few years and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. His mom put an article in front of him from “Our State” magazine. The pictures showed students in action out in the field, some in a stream and others in the middle of pine trees.

It wasn’t long after that Sparks found himself in a group photo just like the ones he saw. “My first experience building trails came through volunteering with the forestry program at HCC,” he explains. “I spent four days volunteering with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency restoring bottomland forest to old agriculture fields along the banks of the Mississippi. This would be my first experience on a large-scale tree planting job, working closely with a state agency. I loved every minute of it and it definitely set the tone for what was to come in my career.”

For the past five years, Sparks has served as stewardship director for the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. He is responsible for managing the land trust’s conservation easement stewardship program and its preserve lands. As part of his duties, Sparks assists with documenting the characteristics and condition of each property’s conservation values and natural resources and then ensure that each conservation easement is visited annually to identify and document any changes that may have occurred.  

In addition, Sparks is responsible for monitoring state-held or third-party conservation easements. He works with multiple groups such as NC state parks, NC Forest Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services. Sparks visits around 7,000 acres of conservation easement land each year across an eight-county service in three major river basins. He also oversees management activities on the conservancy’s preserve lands totaling around 6,000 acres.

Always enjoying being outdoors, Sparks explains two events that helped him decide to go into the forestry field. “Not long after my great-grandparents passed away, the forest surrounding their old home was logged. Around the same time, I visited Alaska and witnessed the majesty of true wilderness. Both these events lit a spark in me to want to work outdoors, protecting forests.”  

Beginning classes at HCC, Sparks knew he found something he was passionate about. “I began learning from people that were really inspiring to be around,” Sparks explains. “HCC was continuing the legacy of training people to be the future stewards of our forests. The instructors go out of their way to make themselves available to students and help students understand the material. The hands-on nature of the program was of great benefit to me. There are just so many amazing resources at HCC, all of which enable students to dive so much deeper into the field of study beyond the classroom. It was hands down one of the best decisions I have ever made towards improving my life.”

Sparks explains that in his career, he runs into a lot of HCC alumni. “I think this speaks to the quality of education you receive at HCC. It rivals that of any four-year forestry program. Students who complete the program go on to serve in important leadership roles with organizations that make decisions that guide the management of both publicly and privately-owned natural resources in North Carolina.”

Finishing the program in 2007, Sparks continued his education and eventually earned master’s degrees in Forest Resources and Nonprofit Organizations from the University of Georgia.

HCC’s Forestry Management Technology program prepares individuals to manage and produce forest resources. Graduates qualify for positions in natural resources technician positions in a wide range of outdoor national venues. For more information, visit haywood.edu or call 828-627-2821.