Appreciations for Jim Finley – a mentor and forester who cared deeply about people and nature

December 27, 2021

Appreciations for Jim Finley – a mentor and forester who cared deeply about people and nature

I had just returned to Peru on October 2 for the first time in a year and a half since the pandemic hit and was shocked to learn that one of my dearest mentors Jim Finley died that day in an accident involving a falling tree in his woodlot.  It has taken me several months to sit down and write this piece because it’s been so painful to accept that he is really gone.  There are several excellent articles available (see links below) that describe Jim’s incredible dedication and accomplishments promoting forest conservation and responsible forestry as a professor at Penn State and other institutions so I will limit myself to describing what Jim meant to me as an advisor, supporter and friend.

I came to Penn State in the fall of 1995 as a doctoral student in the inter-college program in Ecology.  Since my main advisor Dr. Christopher Uhl was in the Biology Dept., I knew I wanted to get someone from the Forestry department on my dissertation committee.  He immediately recommended that I contact Dr. Jim Finley who he knew had background and interest in the technical and human sides of forestry. 

Most faculty members are super-busy with multiple tasks so I was astounded when Jim welcomed me into his office and spent two hours discussing my ideas about studying the ecology, management and marketing of non-timber forest products with a native community in the Brazilian Amazon.  While I had not taken a single class in forestry, we brainstormed every topic with great enthusiasm, and he treated me with the respect that some academics only grant their peers with a proven track-record.  He readily accepted my request to join my dissertation committee and began a relationship that would grow for 25 more years.

Over the next six years, I regularly met with Jim to discuss thorny challenges about my evolving research plans and progress.  How could I figure out which types of copaiba trees had liquid resin in them when there was no standard taxonomy to tell the species apart?  How could we measure resin yield when popular methods for drilling varied according to the season, phase of the moon, and recent sexual activity of the harvester?  What caused the sucking sound we sometimes heard when drilling a partially hollow trunk? How could we describe the characteristics of a forest type likely to have the highest density of copal trees when the forest had more than 200 different species of trees spread over hills, fields and swamps?   How could we tell if a bark-boring weevil larva was alive and feeding in these resin lumps?  Could we transplant these larvae from one tree to another?  How important was copal resin to bees we saw harvesting it?

As every new question or challenge arose, Jim engaged with me about it with his full attention.  He gave me books and articles to read, recommended other people I could contact, and loaned me odd pieces of equipment to try in the field to address new problems.  Sometimes it seemed like he even wrestled with some of my challenges in the midst of his very full life because from time to time I got a message from him saying something like, “Campbell, I have an idea that I’d like to share with you.”

While Jim was very supportive of me throughout this process, he and my other committee members also expected to me to develop a solid grounding in the field of ecology if I was going to add those three key letters after my name.  Going into a comprehensive exam that allows you to progress to the final stage of preparing a dissertation can be very daunting when four professors can ask you anything about your field for two hours.  Jim did ask me wide ranging questions, but they seemed designed to explore the depth and breadth of my knowledge and intellectual curiosity about important ecological themes – not questions about obscure matters best suited for a trivia contest. Jim’s positive comments about my exam meant a lot to me because I had been uncertain about starting a PhD program twenty years after finishing college.   

Most of the conversations I had with Jim while working on my dissertation focused on techniques to probe ecological questions but we also increasingly ventured into the human side of my research because he knew people would only practice good forest management if they meshed well with their social and economic realities.

Jim was also attentive to my successes and challenges being a lone white American researcher working in a remote indigenous village in the Amazon.  After spending several years with the Tembé Indians, I had collected more than enough data to write my dissertation and faced many challenges trying to balance my diverse roles as researcher, village employer, handicraft trader, family photographer, song recorder, medic, and channel for funds to fix community boats and support their land rights campaign.  Jim and my other committee members readily approved the draft of my dissertation in the fall of 2001 with one strong recommendation. I should write a final piece about the ways that my attempts to manage too many roles ultimately led to my expulsion from my host community in 2000.  They felt that sharing at least part of the full story of my experience would help me deal with the embarrassment I felt near the end and offer valuable lessons to others embarking on research in complex social environments.

When someone finishes a PhD, the normal obligations of their advisors shift from guiding their student to complete their dissertation to helping them parlay that degree into a job.  While I had worked with non-profit conservation groups for my whole life before I went back to school, my time at Penn State inspired me to pursue an academic career when I graduated.  Between 2001 and 2003, I applied to 63 assistant professor and post-doctoral researcher positions in the US and Panama.  This meant that I asked Jim, Chris Uhl and at least one other advisor to write and send 63 letters of recommendation for each of these schools and programs.  Even when they only needed minor modifications, these letters needed time and attention to the detail to do them well.  I was so thankful that Jim and my other committee members never failed to help me get these applications in on time.

I felt optimistic about my chances for success in the early stage of this process, but as time went by my expectations about an academic career began to wane and my personal finances declined as I got almost nothing but form-letter rejections.  I scraped together enough money to make one more trip to Brazil and a few trips to Peru to visit new field sites where I hoped to continue my research on copal resin ecology.  I continued talking to Jim from time to time about this work and my situation, and at one particularly tough time, he offered me a part-time position to write about the human dimensions of forestry.  He kept me going for some months, but he ultimately had to let me go because I wasn’t hitting the mark for the target audience.

Jim wanted to help me, but he also had to be honest and effectively manage his new program with integrity.  Jim told me, “when you write for the general public, you have to write in a way so an eighth grader can understand it.”  I tried simplifying my writing, but I never quite got there.  Jim did not look down on people who did not have a lot of formal education.  He just had a firm commitment to ensuring that key points about forest management were accessible to everyone not just professionals who knew the jargon.

Despite my best efforts and my committee’s patient support, continuing in academia was clearly not my path forward since I had only received two interviews and no offers in three years.  While I worked as a policy analyst for Amazon Watch in 2004 and did one more consulting job with the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2005, I finally realized I could not go back to working in advocacy style campaigns.  The only way I could do what I felt truly led to do was to start my own organization to help traditional forest people in the Amazon make a living without damaging the forest.  I created the Center for Amazon Community Ecology in 2006, and Jim was one of the first people I asked to serve on the board of directors.  He initially declined to be one of the directors, but agreed to serve on the Advisory Board.

I was so happy that as CACE got going, I was able to resume meeting Jim with a concrete purpose.  He still had an office at Penn State, but he preferred to meet at the Waffle Shop on North Atherton Street in State College.  We usually met at 7 am for breakfast where we began our conversation over eggs and bacon. He knew all of the waitresses by their first names and they kept refilling his coffee cup with nothing more than a friendly nod from him until he told them to stop.  I always brought a notebook with me, but Jim often turned over the paper placemat to draw a diagram for sampling trees in a forest or sketch an organizational flow chart.

When several early CACE board members left after a few years, I asked Jim again if he would be willing to be a director.  He gracefully accepted and became an even greater source of ideas and support for our full range of activities.  It seemed like there no area where Jim didn’t have some relevant experience and insight he was willing to share.  When we started putting more energy into helping people in our partner communities improve the quality and quantity of their handicrafts, I learned that Jim had once started a very successful side business making and selling wreaths and wooden crafts. 

Jim also gave me valuable counsel for how to approach potential major donors since he had raised millions of dollars to fund various forest initiatives.  He always worked with other board members in a cooperative spirit, played a key role in considering our merger with another group and helped us develop a new mission to guide our group as we formed a sister non-profit organization and company in Peru.  He shared his wit, sincerity, strategic sense, and humble yet powerful intellect to help us make decisions that were ambitious, realistic, and ethically sound to support resilient forest communities.

After serving as a director of CACE for more than ten years, Jim asked to step down from our board at the end of 2020.  My only regret concerning Jim was that we never got to spend any time together in the Amazon which was unfortunately never practical for him.  I was very sorry to see him leave the board, but I could not have asked more from him after 25 years of support to me as a student, non-profit leader, and friend.  I did, however, look forward to having more breakfast chats with him.

It was painful to hear that Jim died unexpectedly on October 2, and I was still in Peru when his funeral service was held.  My heart goes out to his wife Linda, children and grand-children who have lost someone so special.  The impact of Jim’s passing is magnified by knowing that I am only one of thousands of people who directly benefited from his generous spirt, knowledge and time.  I take some solace knowing there are hundreds of thousands of other people and millions of acres of forest that have benefited and will continue to benefit from Jim’s life time of inspired work for many years to come.

Thank you for everything Jim.  May your soul rest in peace among all of the forests of the earth.

Your friend,

Campbell Plowden

Executive Director

Center for Amazon Community Ecology


Dr. Jim Finley with group in a forest

Other tributes to Jim Finley

Remembering Jim Finley (Penn State Dept. of Ecosystem Science and Management)

Jim Finley: Forest protector, private forest center founder, professor emeritus. Leader, dedicated to working at the intersection of people and forests, dies at 72 (Penn State News - Academics)

Dr. James Finley: In memoriam  (Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Tribute to a Forestry Legend: Jim Finley (Steve Jones – Great Blue Heron)

Passing of Dr. Jim Finley (We Conserve PA - Conservation People)

Mourning the loss of Dr. Jim Finley (Foundation for Sustainable Forests)

In Memoriam: Dr. Jim Finley – Fmr Director of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State (PA Environment Digest Blog)

Jim Finley at Wildlands Restoration Site

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