Molpus founder pledges $1m to boost diversity in natural resources

Dick Molpus says increasing participation of women, minorities and first-generation college students is part of a comprehensive approach to keeping up with the demands of an evolving forest products industry.

The founder of Molpus Woodlands Group has extended a $1 million grant to a Mississippi State University program that aims to increase diversity within the state’s forestry industry.

Dick Molpus is supporting the program to encourage participation of women, historically underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students in Mississippi’s natural resource industries, MSU’s College of Forest Resources.

The pledge will support programming that includes education and exposure designed to increase awareness of timber-related positions including forest economist, environmental manager, geographical information specialist and financial analyst, among others.

Steve Bullard, associate dean of the College of Forest Resources and associate director of its Forest and Wildlife Research center, told Agri Investor the program aims to create an undergraduate forestry program that reflects by 2030 the demographics of recent high school graduating classes in Mississippi, which are about 50 percent female and 40 percent minorities. As a gauge of how ambitious a target that is, Bullard offered that the Society of American Foresters is currently only 8 percent female and 1 percent African American.

“We want a profession that reflects our society. The reason we want that is we want the great ideas that come from everybody. We don’t want homogenous thinking,” said Bullard. “We lose our license to operate if we don’t engage society effectively, that’s a critical issue for everybody.”

While there have been previous initiatives to address forestry industry representation, Bullard added, they often focus narrowly on scholarships.

“One person at a time; that doesn’t make a huge difference at the national level,” he said. “If we get our undergraduate student body to reflect the diversity of our graduating classes, we’ll be making a difference at scale, especially if we can show other universities what they can do.”

In addition to the benefits of widening the local talent pool, Bullard added, the education offered by the program Molpus is supporting can produce benefits elsewhere.

“If the policymakers and decisionmakers don’t understand what’s going on in the natural resources world, they’re less likely to make the right decisions when it comes to policy. It can be something as simple as whether they are going to let a log truck cross a certain bridge at a local level or at the national level, or whether the carbon accounting will look at forests carbon neutral or not,” he said. “Having representation of our society in our profession is just fundamentally important.”

Molpus told Agri Investor while his pledge is not intended as an ESG initiative, it does reflect the importance of providing all employees with incentives to keep up with the demands of a forest products industry that has evolved significantly.

“This is pretty pragmatic stuff,” he said. “The more job applicants we have, the higher quality they’ll be, the better results we’ll get, the better returns we’ll get.”

Molpus Woodlands, he added, operates in rural areas throughout the country that face high levels of unemployment and like all TIMOs, the company has strong incentive to help sustain high-quality local talent.

Molpus and Bullard both mentioned hopes the MSU program can serve as a national model and a venue for collaboration on diversity issues in the industry. Molpus Woodlands manages $2.6 billion in timberland properties across Idaho, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Adirondacks, Appalachia and the South.

“All those areas have one thing in common: they are rural areas with rural people, many of them as smart as can be, who would love to be able to make a living, stay near their roots and have a sense of place. They want to live like that,” he said.  “Not everybody wants to live in Manhattan!”