UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State and its College of Agricultural Sciences have renamed the Center for Private Forests at Penn State in honor of its founder, the late James C. (Jim) Finley, an outstanding academic scholar and teacher whose pioneering work at the interface of people and forests reached hundreds of thousands of people.
Finley’s scholarship and service were national in scope but drew their inspiration from the 740,000-plus private woodland owners in Pennsylvania, stewardship of the 12 million acres of forest they own, and the forestry and natural resource professionals supporting private land stewardship. The James C. Finley Center for Private Forests puts Penn State at the forefront of private forestry research, teaching and practice nationwide.
“Honoring members of the Penn State community who are dedicated to excellence in research, teaching and service is a longstanding tradition of the University,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “Professor Finley exemplified all of these values while serving on the faculty and generously giving of his expertise within and outside of Penn State following his retirement in 2017. With this naming, the University hopes to recognize Professor Finley’s work and to ensure that the innovative research methods and the stewardship values and practices he espoused will endure.”
Finley’s career had a broad scope, encompassing forestry practice and the connections between people and the natural world. From his beginning as an extension educator in Sullivan County through his service as the Ibberson Chair of Private Forest Management and professor emeritus of private forest management and human dimensions and natural resources, Finley was always innovating, learning and teaching. He touched the lives of hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom became lifetime friends and colleagues. And he touched the lives of thousands of private landowners and natural resource professionals, inspiring all to be better stewards of private forests.
With colleagues, Finley produced foundational scholarship that recognized the personal, value-driven relationships that many private landowners have with the forests they own. He worked hard to help forestry and natural resource professionals recognize these relationships to better understand the needs of private forest landowners and help them achieve their stewardship goals. He also was committed to helping landowners, professionals and communities understand that forests, if managed sustainably, could both thrive and provide a host of benefits for people, wildlife and broader society.
Finley received national recognition as the co-chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s National Roundtable on Sustainable Forestry and as a fellow in the Society of American Foresters, whose national Technology Transfer Award he received in 2000. His ideas and practice influenced both scholarship and outreach to forest landowners around the country and beyond. Finley was a Penn State graduate, earning his bachelor’s degree in forest science, a master’s degree in forest resources and a doctoral degree in extension education from the University.
In 2011, with colleagues from the newly created Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and others across the University, Finley established the Center for Private Forests at Penn State to ensure the continuation of this critically important work. Since its founding, the center has drawn on decades of transdisciplinary research by Finley and colleagues. This pioneering work included characterizing private forestlands and landowners and exploring innovative ways to provide landowners with the inspiration, skills and advice needed for effective stewardship.
“Jim’s pioneering academic scholarship has been instrumental in expanding understanding of forestry practice and identifying ways of fostering connections between individuals and communities and the natural world that surrounds them,” said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Over the course of his career, he inspired and shaped the work of innumerable students, professionals, fellow academic scientists and forest landowners who shared his interest in stewardship of natural resources.”
It was truly an honor and privilege to have known Finley, Roush said, adding that it is clear he touched the lives of many people through his work. Roush noted that he learned a great deal from Finley personally and is thankful for his efforts as co-founder of the Center for Private Forests.
“His passion for teaching, research and service, both for others and the forests he loved, was always evident,” Roush said. “I look forward to seeing the center continue to thrive and for Jim’s legacy to inspire all those who knew him and to motivate future generations. This naming of the center in Jim’s honor reflects the importance of both his work and continuing the distinctive vision and values he modeled.”
Under Finley’s guidance as the center’s first director and later in an advisory capacity, the center has become a trusted leader in studying private forest landowners and their land. In the decade since its founding, the center has already made a number of significant contributions to the field of forest stewardship. These include conducting novel research to address landowner and professional values, attitudes and behaviors; leading the storied Pennsylvania Forest Stewards volunteer program, a forest stewardship-focused peer volunteer network that just celebrated its 31st anniversary; cultivating stewardship across boundary lines; creating training and landowner resources for legacy planning; and developing training programs for financial professionals to better assist forest landowners. The center also has built an engaged community dedicated to improving forest health, resilience and vitality.
Despite officially retiring in 2017, Finley continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the center, serving as its volunteer council chair, working on applied research projects, and writing about what it meant to be a steward of the woods. Tragically, he was killed in an accident while tending the Finley family woodland in October 2021.
Allyson Muth, director of the center, praised the decision to name the facility in Finley’s honor.
“The James C. Finley Center for Private Forests at Penn State will build on Jim’s life’s work; his vision for helping the owners and managers of private forests of the commonwealth, the region and nation care well for the land; and his legacy of stewardship, serving those who own and manage the forest resource,” she said. “The naming and the honor it represents will continue to inspire the center’s staff, council, volunteers and stakeholders as we work to advance the work of our colleague, mentor and friend.”
Those interested in learning more about Finley and the Center for Private Forests are invited to visit the center’s website.
–Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University