The Overstory

Welcome to The Overstory, the tri-annual publication of forest-centric news produced by The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment. We are excited to share with you how our community is advancing the field of forestry in all its many forms.

Featured Article: Yale Forest Forum Celebrates 30 Years of Bringing Forestry Leaders Together

Research Scientist Marlyse Duguid (right) discusses Indigenous and colonial land use history with students and faculty from Salish Kootenai College during a visit to Yale-Myers Forest March 29, 2024. Photo: Mark Conrad.

By: Sara Santiago ‘19 MF

The Yale Forest Forum hosts the longest speaker series at the Yale School of the Environment, but the organization’s mission extends far beyond this offering. Since 1994, YFF has tapped into the pulse of controversies and successes in forest policy and management across the United States and the world. Based at The Forest School at YSE, the forum is also intricately tied to the vision of forestry at the School and serves as TFS’ special events and convening hub. In its 30th year, we celebrate YFF’s history of convening ahead of the School’s 125th anniversary and release of its new strategic plan.

30 Years of Evolution

John Gordon, Pinchot Professor Emeritus of Forestry and Environmental Studies and former dean of the Yale School of the Environment, established the Yale Forest Forum as a vehicle to engage external audiences. Gordon is a member of the “Gang of Four” — the scientists called upon by Congress and the Clinton Administration to develop a forest management plan for the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s.

From left: Norm Johnson, John Gordon, Jerry Franklin, and Jack Ward Thomas lay the groundwork for the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan. Photo: YFF. 

The Forum’s founding stems directly from the controversies about how forestry should be practiced in 1980s and 1990s, explains Gordon, from the face-off between NGOs and the forest industry during the “Timber Wars” in the PNW’s old growth forests to impacts of the Endangered Species Act. He believed “it would be a good idea to have people with a variety of views hear the debate on forestry and forest practices and reach as wide a range of participants as possible through YFF.”

To carry out this mission, YFF — led by Gordon and coordinated by Gary Dunning ’96 MF — organized the Seventh American Forest Congress along with the Congress’ executive director Bill Bentley. The Congress solicited learnings and opinions from 1,580 delegates and 52 roundtables from nearly every U.S. state. From state roundtables to a national congress held in Washington D.C. in 1996, the Seventh American Forest Congress identified widely agreed upon elements that constituents suggested become national forest policy. Delegates included scientists, environmental organizations, industry, and, perhaps most notably, forestland owners holding anywhere from two to several thousand acres of American woodlands. The Congress captured a diverse audience in other ways, too: Native stewards participated, and women accounted for 30% of delegates.

The previous Congress was held twenty years earlier in 1975, so YFF led in modernizing forest policy from the bottom up during a time of tense public perception of forestry in the United States. The Seventh Congress published 60 principles: “from protecting old growth in public forests, to assuring full debate and public involvement in the legislative process, safeguarding property rights of U.S. citizens and putting human needs first.” These principles remain relevant today.

Delegates and the School’s faculty were concerned with implementing what came out of the Congress, according to Gordon and Dunning. The School took two steps forward: 1) filling the gap identified in the Congress that landowners in the U.S. are not recognized, supported, or serviced (via the School’s Sustaining Family Forests Initiative and the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry), and 2) enhancing the student experience at the School (via YFF).

After the Congress, Dunning became YFF’s director and with Gordon — and the School’s faculty who coalesced around him — they affirmed the Forum as the center for forests and forestry at the School. “We brought in people with different perspectives, thoughts on the edge,” Gordon explains about YFF playing host to forestry leaders from NGOs and industry, who cycled through the School as speakers and visiting fellows. “They were not your standard academics. In fact, we stressed not having academics.”

In the 2000s, the small landowner program, the Sustaining Family Forests Initiative, grew into a very substantial initiative at the School over the course of two decades. Meanwhile, YFF focused on continuous lunch talks to connect students with forestry experts. The original YFF leadership, such as Gordon, retired and others like Dunning dispersed into other programs at the School, until Dunning returned to direct the program once again in 2018.

Marsh Hall is the historic home and gathering place for the Yale Forest Forum at The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment. Photo: Cloe Poisson.

Moving from a rolodex-based system of inviting speakers to campus, Dunning, YFF’s coordinator Ben Walter, and YSE Assistant Dean for Community and Inclusion Thomas Easley organized the first themed and branded speaker series in fall 2019, “Dismantling Marginalization: Experiences and Lessons from Forest Peoples and Forest Professionals.” Walter explains: “We had a theme. We had a poster! YFF became more focused.”

In the middle of the second themed YFF speaker series, COVID-19 closed Yale University. Quickly, Walter, who was also coordinating international online programming at the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative, transitioned the series online. “We were feeling our way,” explains Walter. At first, the speaker series’ audience remained the same as it was within the walls of Marsh Hall’s intimate lunch talks: students, faculty, staff, and some community members. But with a Zoom link on hand, speakers began sharing their talks with colleagues and their networks.

Liz Felker ’18 MESc, who served as TFS’ assistant director from 2022-2023, says “going online was just responding to what we could accomplish at a moment when people were looking for a way to be connected and learn during the pandemic. We saw a shift in our community from within YSE to an external, public audience.”

“How do we make this permanent? How do we evolve and be responsive?” Felker’s role was to build off Walter’s foundation and make the system and structure of YFF sustainable. At the same time, Sara Santiago ’19 MF, who served as TFS’ communications manager during the transition online transition, established the School’s Overstory newsletter and started building TFS’ public forestry community and the vehicles needed to communicate with it.

In response to a growing audience, YFF staff collaborated with faculty and staff at the School to develop these virtual series as well as an associated seminar for students. “YFF requires the development of a little community of practice within the School to create each speaker series,” explains Felker. An experienced facilitator, Felker worked directly with faculty to design the series and ensure we had “the knowledges and perspectives that give us a full view of any given topic.”

“YFF is really well-suited for topics that are based in the embedded knowledge, practice, and experience of the speaker,” explains Felker. Since going online, YFF has offered free, publicly accessible semester-long series on: community-based forestry, wood building products, bioenergy from forests, urban forest management, defining high-quality forest carbon credits, the voluntary carbon market in tropical forests, largescale planted forestry, smallholder forestry, climate-smart forestry, and Tribal forestry.

The speaker series are as streamlined, collaborative, and focused as ever. And YFF’s audience is committed and devoted to attending. “A huge source of joy has been seeing people engaging in the series and coming every week,” says YFF postgraduate associate Thoko Changufu ’23 MF. Our audience has grown from tens to thousands of participants since 2020.

Recent Highlights

Our audience and outreach extend beyond the historic speaker series. YFF’s ongoing environmental author talks organized with Orion Magazine and the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology have welcomed the biggest audiences for virtual events at Yale University with 15,000 registrants. They have also served as an outlet to explore human relationships with forests and nature through the humanities.

The spring 2024 speaker series on Tribal forestry was co-developed and co-hosted with the Yale Center for Environmental Justice and, for the first time, another academic institution, the Salish Kootenai College. Over 3,700 people registered for this series and upwards of 900 people attended talks in real-time. Nearly all speakers were Tribal foresters, and YFF hosted students from Salish Kootenai College at Yale for a week-long field trip.

Faculty, students, and staff from The Forest School and the Salish Kootenai College learn about logging operations, maple syrup production, and land use history at Yale-Myers Forest. Photo: Mark Conrad.

What’s next?

Dunning envisions YFF as “a true home for engagement on forest issues.” He wants YFF to “bring people together in different ways, in different formats, and with different objectives when convening at the School.” He also envisions bringing back YFF’s three original pillars of outreach, education, and research.

In the months ahead, The Forest School will be releasing its strategic plan, which is linked to John Gordon’s “Redefining Forestry,” a vision for forestry at the School published in July 1994 at the time of YFF’s creation. Thirty years later, we are again redefining forestry, with YFF playing a central role in bringing forestry leaders together. We are also looking forward to celebrating the School’s 125th anniversary over a year of events, workshops, and convenings in 2025.

As for the next speaker series, we invite you to join us in exploring mature and old-growth forests with the Society of American Foresters. More information will come this summer to continue an age-old conversation that has recently been reinvigorated by the Executive Order on Strengthening the National Forests, Communities, and Local Economies.


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