After Devastating Wildfire Season, UVA Darden Student Shares What It’s Like to Manage Vast Western Forest

By Emma D'Arpino

With a background in public sector land management, Kyle Blum (Class of 2019) came to the University of Virginia Darden School of Business to broaden his skillset.

“I had a really awesome public sector experience and learned a ton in terms of leadership,” Blum said. “But I didn’t have some of the core tools that are necessary to run a business, and I didn’t speak the language of business at all.”

Blum worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, where he was head of the uplands program. In this role, he oversaw a portfolio of three million acres of land that the state was granted more than 100 years ago.

“The mandate was: Make money from that land and use it to fund school construction throughout the state. Principally, K-12 school construction, but there were university grants as well,” Blum said. “We had this old mandate written in the state constitution, and we delivered about $250 million a year to that purpose, which was great. But there were all these modern challenges to take into consideration when managing a public land portfolio that weren’t really contemplated 130 years ago.”

Some of those problems included facilitating public access and building resilience to the portfolio given climate considerations. A growing concern became managing intense wildfires. As the summer and fall 2018 fires that destructively raged through California demonstrated, fires in dry western U.S. climates pose a serious threat.

“We absolutely had to make sure our lands were being managed to be resilient to wildfires, which means making sure that you’re keeping healthy forests, that there’s a diversity of trees and that you’ve got appropriate spacing. If the forest gets too dense, it’s really susceptible to fire,” Blum said.

Blum and his staff had additional responsibility in actually fighting forest fires.

“The staff that worked for me, who nine months out of the year would be working on timber sales or agriculture leases or whatever their day job was, were also trained and certified firefighters and would actually go out and fight forest fires in Washington state and outside of it over the course of the summer.”

This kind of experience and managing problems on such a large scale is something that Blum has used during his time at Darden to help him achieve a broader perspective in business. He’s also emphasized broadening his perspective through his involvement with the Tri-Sector Leadership Fellows program at Darden. Through the Tri-Sector program, he’s had the opportunity to interact with UVA students from the University’s law school and Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to learn about the importance of multidisciplinary perspectives in decision-making, particularly when confronting some of society’s most challenging issues.

“It’s been an amazing way to practice combining my public sector work experience with the business acumen I’ve developed at Darden,” Blum said.

He’s also had specific classes that have made a particular impact on him.

“Professor Luann Lynch has an elective in the Second Year called ‘Management Planning and Control Systems,’ which is all about structures within an organization that incentive certain behaviors from within that organization,” Blum said. “It’s just a great class for thinking big-picture about the systems side of leadership and how to create structures that get your people to act the way you want.”

Another class that Blum cited as one of his favorite’s is Professor Mary Margaret Frank’s class “Taxation and Management Decisions.” Blum says the class exposed him to important business considerations through historical examples of situations where companies have leveraged tax law to tremendous benefit.

With these classroom experiences, Blum feels as if he’ll leave Darden in May having achieved many of his learning objectives.

“I have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of business and how the private sector is different from the public sector. Delivering on expectations for shareholders is very, very different from service to the public and what I was doing before,” Blum said.

Not only has Blum been able to take away a lot from the classroom, he’s contributed to it as well. Blum co-wrote a case study with Professor Morela Hernandez called “DressingRm AR,” which is about gender issues in the workplace and has been put into the core curriculum.

“I wasn’t happy with the case we had for discussing gender issues during my First Year, so I went to Morela and asked her if she was open to changing it. We worked together on the case, and I was hopeful that it would be taught in the core, but you never know,” Blum said. “Getting to see it taught this year was an amazing experience.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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