Russell graduated from Clemson University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in forest management. He began his career with the SC Forestry Commission as a project forester in Sumter County. In 1989, just in time for Hurricane Hugo, he moved to Kingstree as the assistant district forester. Russell’s next move was to Florence in 1995 to become the staff director for the Pee Dee Region. In April 1997, he assumed the role of forest director and assistant environmental education coordinator at Harbison State Forest in Columbia. From 2006 until 2008 he was the state lands coordinator where he supervised operations on state forests and provided assistance to other agencies that own forestland. He became the forest management chief in August 2008.