Posted: October 10, 2021

Jim Finley, Ph.D., Ibberson Chair and Professor Emeritus of Private Forest Management and Human Dimensions and Natural Resources, and Center for Private Forests co-founder and Council Chair, was a leader dedicated to working at the intersection of people and forests.

For decades, Jim Finley shared his knowledge and deep understanding of the woods with peer volunteers attending forest stewardship training programs.

For decades, Jim Finley shared his knowledge and deep understanding of the woods with peer volunteers attending forest stewardship training programs.

The Center for Private Forests at Penn State is deeply saddened to share the sudden and tragic loss of our co-founder and Council Chair Dr. Jim Finley, Ibberson Chair and Professor Emeritus of Private Forest Management and Human Dimen­sions and Natural Resources, on October 2, 2021. Jim's decades of work informed our understanding of forests, private forest landowners, and all the people who care for the woods, have served as the foundation for the Center’s work since its inception in 2011, and guide its vision for the future.

Jim began his Penn State career, and involvement in forestry, as an undergrad­uate in 1965. In 1970, he completed his BS in Forest Science and left Penn State to join the USDA Forest Service Northern Area Research Station in Broomall, PA. He did this to gain more practical, what many foresters call their “dirt forestry,” experience. While with the Forest Service, he and a colleague were among the first to estimate the population of private forest landowners in the United States, setting him on his path to understanding and engaging woodland owners.

In 1975, Jim completed an MS degree in Forest Resources at Penn State and joined its Cooperative Extension Service as an area Extension educator working out of Dushore, PA. While there, he helped organize and initiate two of what would become a statewide network of woodland owners associations, which educated and connected woodland owners to profes­sionals who could help them fulfill their hopes for their land. In 1981, Jim joined the School of Forest Resources faculty at University Park. There his work focused on advancing research and Extension education programs on sustainable forest resource management, especially on private forests. In 1991, he completed his Ph.D. in Extension Education at Penn State.

From the beginning of his career, Jim strived to find innovative ways to protect forest health and vitality. In 1991, a collab­orative partnership established between Pennsylvania’s Department of Conser­vation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry and faculty from the School of Forest Resources provided a platform for Jim and his colleagues to do so. Focusing on private forest landowners and their land, the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program emerged from this partnership, educating and empowering landowners to share what they’d learned with others and supporting them with a set of foun­dational educational resources to inform their decision-making. Several signature initiatives emerged from Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Program which con­tinue to this day.

The network of peer volunteers which was established to help educate and inspire other landowners to undertake stewardship of their land celebrates its 31st anniversary this year. This Pennsylva­nia Forest Stewards volunteer program, with over 750 members trained, remains a vibrant and knowledgeable resource for landowners and professionals alike, and has become a benchmark program for others around the country. Importantly, the work of this partnership continues, with webinars, myriad publications and newsletters, woods walks, and more. Through all of his efforts, Jim reached hundreds of thousands with his simple but profound message, encouraging all of us to care together for the woods of this state, region, and nation which enrich our lives so much.

Jim also was an outstanding academic scholar, with a broad scope encompassing both forestry practice and the connections between people and the natural world. He contributed significantly to the scholar­ship of the profession across his career, with foundational writings in partnership with lifelong friends and colleagues. As Jim’s career evolved, he dedicated himself to understanding how people engage with, and care for, the natural resources around them. He was also committed to helping landowners, professionals, and communities understand that forests, if managed sustainably, could both thrive and provide a host of benefits to people, wildlife, and broader society.

Much of his work was in the area that has come to be known as the study of hu­man dimensions. Working collaboratively with others at Penn State, and across the region and nation, Jim was an early pioneer in transdisciplinary forest-related research. Such studies brought scholars with diverse backgrounds, as well as interested local community members, to the table to design, implement, and analyze contemporary studies. His com­mitment to conducting timely, relevant research at the highest standards resulted in numerous highly competitive grants and countless journal articles and reports. Perhaps most importantly, it inspired many young academics in a broad array of disciplines to pursue similar work which reflected how to best integrate local and professional communities. In continuation of this work, Jim co-created and co-chaired Penn State’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment inter-college graduate degree program.

Jim’s knowledge and insights were highly sought after within both academic and landowner commu­nities. He mentored hun­dreds of graduate students, undergraduate students, and natural resources profes­sionals through his long tenure at Penn State. He also became a friend to many who began their time with him in the classroom at Penn State, interacted with him through trainings, or found his writings. Moreover, he educated tens of thousands of landowners who viewed him as both a highly knowl­edgeable resource and a source of inspiration. Walks in the woods with Jim Finley were a highly sought-after experience for anyone interested in for­ests. Wearing his trademark fedora, Jim could often be found wandering through private woodlots or state forests, followed by groups of landowners or professionals, all of whom had a keen interest in what he had to say. He also gave generously of his time to individual landowners, visiting the woodlots of anyone who asked for his help, offering advice, encouragement, and inspiration. Everyone returning from these walks emerged more knowledgeable about the trees, forests, and ecosystems surrounding them and were inspired by Jim’s reverence for the natural world. His distinctive ability to encourage landown­ers to connect their land with their values gave many the confidence to embark on the path toward stewardship. And, he repeatedly demonstrated an ability to turn his expert advice into the foundation for deep and meaningful friendships.

In 2003, Jim was elected a Fellow in the Society of American Foresters, a high honor within the professional organiza­tion he joined in 1970 and actively partic­ipated in throughout his tenure. Jim was also a Pinchot Institute for Conservation senior research fellow. He co-chaired the US Forest Service’s National Roundtable on Sustainable Forestry and served, most recently, on the boards of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Founda­tion for Sustainable Forestry, the Policy Council for WeConservePA, the education committee for the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, Eden Hill Conservancy, and many others. During his tenure at Penn State, he shared his expertise with numer­ous organizations and groups, including state, regional, and federal agencies, non-profits, and others focused on serving forests and people around the world, of­ten garnering awards and recognitions for his effort—far too numerous to list.

In 2011, with colleagues from the newly-created Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and others across the University, Jim established the Center for Private Forests at Penn State. This Center continues his pioneering work on private forestlands and landowners, exploring innovative ways to provide landowners with the inspiration, skills, and advice needed for effective steward­ship. Despite officially retiring in 2017, Jim continued to work tirelessly to foster the Center’s development and growth. He served as the Center’s Council Chair, continued to work on applied research projects, and wrote even more material on what it meant to be a steward of the woods. With what little “free” time he had, Jim could be found in his woodshop—often turning his famous bowls and, not surprisingly, teaching others how to do the same; volunteering at the faith-based Krislund Camp in Madisonburg, PA; and enjoying and teaching about the woods with family and friends.

Born December 6, 1948, in Munhall, Pennsylvania, Jim was the son of the late Samuel A. Finley and Martha Eleanor Wycoff Finley. He is survived by his wife, Linda Jones Finley of Port Matilda, PA, one son, Andrew O. Finley (Sarah R. Laubscher) of Okemos, Michigan, three grandchildren, Ava G., Oliver J., and Callum A., a brother, David A. Finley (Anna Marie Balint) of Coatesville, PA, and a nephew, Nathan Finley also of Coatesville, PA.

Jim touched innumerable lives with his passion and care for the woods. This pro­found loss will echo through personal and professional relationships and the private, and public, forests of the state, region, nation, and beyond. Please hold his family and friends in your hearts.

Written by Jim's friends and family.

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802