The Life & Legacy of Jim Finley
December 6, 1948 – October 2, 2021
We are deeply saddened to share the sudden and tragic loss of long-time IASNR member Dr. Jim Finley, on October 2, 2021. Jim was Ibberson Chair and Professor Emeritus of Private Forest Management and Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Penn State University. His decades of work informed our understanding of forests, private forest landowners, and all people who care for the woods.
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 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.
Despite being a forester first and foremost, Jim’s work in human dimensions found purchase in the creation and nascent development of IASNR. In large part, this reflected his increased involvement in the guidance of students from across the university including forestry, wildlife, rural sociology, recreation, parks and tourism management, geography, anthropology, and extension education. And his role was not simply as member or reader on MS and PhD committees – he routinely served as an official or unofficial co-advisor to these students, and coauthored numerous papers and articles with them which were regularly part of the annual ISSRM meetings. But Jim’s contributions to IASNR extended considerably beyond those forms of participation. He was among a small group who first met in 2000 to discuss and develop plans to establish the organization, and became one of IASNR’s first members when it was officially established in 2001. He was an early and active champion of the organization, serving on numerous committees and promoting it and its transdisciplinary nature wherever he went. He served as a member of the first IASNR Council, and as the organization’s Treasurer from 2009 to 2013. Few individuals have been as integrally involved in IASNR as Jim — he was in all respects one of the organization’s charter members. Jim’s knowledge and insights were highly sought after within both academic and landowner communities. He mentored hundreds of graduate students, undergraduates, 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 towards 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 as 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 unsurprisingly 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.
Jim touched innumerable lives with his decency, humility, passion, and care for the woods and also for students, colleagues, landowners, and all people. His kindness knew no bounds. 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 and prayers.
A celebration of Jim’s life and legacy will take place on Saturday, October 30th at the State College Presbyterian Church. Full information on the services is available at https://kochfuneralhome.com/tribute/details/2532/James-Finley/obituary.html#content-start. In lieu of flowers the family has asked that donations in Jim’s memory be made to the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, at Krislund (krislund.org), or to an environmental conservation organization of your choice.