UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jim Finley long will be remembered for his simple but powerful message: take care of the woods. And in conveying that idea to thousands of people across Pennsylvania and the nation over a five-decade Penn State career, the professor emeritus of forest resources persuaded many.
Finley, 72, who died in a tragic accident Oct. 2, will be missed profoundly not only by his family and friends, but also by the University community and the forest lovers and landowners with whom he interacted. The Ibberson Chair in Private Forest Management and the co-founder of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, he had a passion for the woods and for exploring the human dimensions of natural resources.
A leader dedicated to working at the intersection of people and forests, Finley’s research, outreach and experience were invaluable to private forest landowners and citizens who care for the woods, according to Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Jim’s knowledge of the field had served as the foundation for the center’s mission since its inception in 2011, and as chair of the organization’s council, his forest acumen was expected to guide its vision well into the future,” Roush said. “He was a wonderful and effective faculty member, always with an eye on the practical in his education and research. I genuinely enjoyed every meeting I ever had with Jim and learned a great deal from his insights and humor. Jim will be greatly missed.”
Finley began his Penn State career and involvement in forestry as an undergraduate in 1965. In 1970, he completed his bachelor’s degree in forest science and joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, assigned to the Northern Area Research Station in Broomall.
His goal was to gain practical knowledge — 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.
After completing a master’s degree in forest resources at Penn State in 1975, Finley joined Penn State Extension as an educator working out of Dushore. 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.
Joining the School of Forest Resources faculty at University Park in 1981, Finley’s work focused on advancing research and extension education programs related to sustainable forest resource management, especially on private forests. In 1991, he completed his doctorate in extension education at Penn State.
Finley strived to find innovative ways to protect forest health and vitality. In 1991, a collaboration 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 his colleagues and him 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.
“Jim Finley was perhaps the single most influential forester in Pennsylvania over the past few decades,” said Bradley Cardinale, professor and head of the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management (formerly the School of Forest Resources). “He had a great vision for how we can manage the state’s forests more sustainably, and his dynamic personality inspired people to work together for a common purpose.”
As his career evolved, Finley dedicated himself to understanding how people engage with and care for the natural resources around them. 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 to people, wildlife and society.
His commitment to conducting timely, relevant research resulted in numerous highly competitive grants and many journal articles and reports. Perhaps most importantly, he 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, Finley co-created and co-chaired Penn State’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment inter-college graduate degree program.
Finley’s knowledge and insights were in great demand within both academic and landowner communities, noted Allyson Brownlee Muth, director of the Center for Private Forests. He mentored hundreds of graduate students, undergraduate students and natural resources professionals, befriending many of them.
Moreover, he educated thousands of landowners who viewed him as both a highly knowledgeable resource and a source of inspiration, Muth added. Walks in the woods with Finley were a highly sought-after experience for anyone interested in forests.
“Wearing his trademark fedora, Jim often could 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,” she said. “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.”
Finley was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Foresters in 2003, a high honor within the professional organization he joined in 1970 and in which he actively participated throughout his career. A senior research fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, he also co-chaired the U.S. Forest Service’s National Roundtable on Sustainable Forestry.
Most recently, he served on the education committee for the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and on the boards of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Foundation for Sustainable Forestry, the Policy Council for WeConservePA, Eden Hill Conservancy, and many others.
Despite officially retiring in 2017, Finley, who is survived by his wife Linda, a son and three grandchildren, continued to foster the Center for Private Forests at Penn State’s development and growth. In addition to serving as its council chair, he continued to work on applied research projects and wrote extensively about what it meant to be a steward of the woods.
“Jim touched innumerable lives with his passion for the woods,” said Muth. “The profound loss with his passing will echo through personal and professional relationships and the private and public forests of the state, region and nation.”
–Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University