Serendipity Has Guided Research Forester Henry McNab’s 50-Plus-Year Career

McNab is one of SRS’s longest serving employees

Research forester Henry McNab. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
Research forester Henry McNab. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Please take a moment to meet the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station’s most valuable resources through the Faces of Innovation series.

Spending Christmas with the Forest Service led Henry McNab, research forester, to become one of SRS’s longest serving employees. McNab started his career in Fort Myers, Florida, working for Jim Bethune measuring pine trees around Christmas time. He called the two-week stint with the Forest Service “kind of serendipitous” in helping lead him to where he is today. While he started out measuring pine trees, he now studies hardwood forests. He is located at the Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management research unit in Asheville, North Carolina. On his own admission, he has probably worked for more project leaders and research station directors than most people.

What did you do differently after your temporary Christmas position?

I was a junior when I took that Christmas job with Jim measuring pine. He really introduced me to the research side of the Forest Service. I had planned on working for the state of Florida as a forest management person. I went back to school and started taking any classes I could find that would help with research. After I finished up my undergraduate degree, I continued working at the Fort Myers office while finishing my Master’s Degree.

Besides Bent Creek and Fort Myers, where else have you worked?

My first full-time permanent position was in a unit that worked on fire in Macon, Georgia. After it closed, I moved to the Hitchiti Experimental Forest  and worked in fire management. Next, I went to the Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina, where I became a Region 8 employee. In 1979, I moved over to Athens, Georgia. That was during the oil crisis and the Forest Service was putting a lot of emphasis and money into biomass. After the funding dried up and the budget got tight, I was able to come here to Bent Creek due to someone retiring. I can tell you it wasn’t my first choice to come to Bent Creek. I enjoyed Athens.

What did you find different about Bent Creek?

Hardwoods! Before I came here, I was working with southern pines and loblolly. Here I was working with all of these hardwoods. Each hardwood has its own personality. Some like light and some do not. Others like lots of water while others like a drier environment. It was very challenging and very interesting. I have been very lucky to have such great positions and it is crazy how life bounces you around.

Since we are celebrating our 100th year of Forest Service research, what changes have you seen?

I think the biggest change has been the shift away from the commercial value of a tree to the whole ecological classification. This shift started in the 1980s and I was lucky enough to be part of the team. I was actually the only researcher at the meeting in Region 8 that came together to discuss this shift. We started looking at how all trees had value in the forest and looking at the whole suite of species and elements in the forest, from the critters to the water. This shift was really due to the public. It was the public becoming educated about the environment. This is referenced in history and one local controversy not too far from here on the Monongahela. The Forest Service had to get away from the clearcutting practices.

What would you tell the newest researcher coming onboard with the Forest Service?

Make sure you get involved in doing something that you really like. Chasing money did not matter to me. You also have to make things happen for yourself. If you are offered opportunities that may take you away from where you are, take that chance.

Don’t be hardheaded or you will actually get broken off. Like a tree, you have to be able to bend a bit.

I have found the Forest Service to be a very supportive organization. Everybody within the Forest Service has a contribution to make. Everybody! Not just the researchers. We are supporting each other, holding each other up all the way up to the Chief.

For more information, email  Henry McNab  at

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.