Yalies to help defend forests

A 136-year-old environmental activist organization recruited a Yale alumnus and a current professor to its new science advisory board last week.

Jonathan Kusel FES ’82, a social conservation activist, and Yale School of Forestry professor Mark Ashton FES ’90 were among nine environmental professionals named to American Forests’ new Science Advisory Board. The pair will advise American Forests, the oldest nonprofit conservation organization in America, on research and policy to ensure that all the group’s decisions are grounded in scientific fact, American Forests representatives said.

Over the course of its 136-year history, the group has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and numerous local organizations to initiate and fund conservation and reclamation efforts in forested areas, spokeswoman Michelle Werts said. Since 1990, the organization has focused on tree planting and reclamation, Werts said, estimating that over this period American Forests has planted over 40 million trees across all 50 U.S. states and 38 other nations.

Ashton said his role on the science advisory board will focus on forests’ health and regeneration.

“American Forests is an old organization,” Ashton said in an email to the News. “I was happy to help out if I could.”

Ashton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine before coming to Yale for his master’s degree and a doctoral degree in forest ecology. His long-term research concentrates on tropical trees in Asia and the Americas, and what role these trees play in their ecosystems. While working as a professor in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he has conducted field research in tropical forests in Sri Lanka and Panama, temperate forests in India and New England, and boreal forests in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The science advisory board is part of an ongoing effort by American Forests to direct its activities on an increasingly scientific basis, by gathering the ideas of experts across the earth science community, Werts said.

Werts added that the science advisory board, which American Forests plans to expand from nine members to more than 20 in the future, will rely on its members to guide the new board through its first year. She said there will be numerous opportunities for Kusel and Ashton to contribute, ranging from blogging or writing for the quarterly American Forests Magazine to leading presentations and conducting research. Gerry Gray ’78, American Forests senior vice president for conservation programs, added that the board also serves as a forum for members to share their ideas and expand their research with the help of fellow experts, adding that if the board is a success American Forests will explore funding its members’ research in the future.

“We want to give them a venue to share their research with a broader audience than they would normally be able to,” Gray said.

Kusel is currently the executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, an advocacy group that seeks to connect the public to environmental activism. After receiving his master’s degree in forest science from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he earned a doctorate in natural resource sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. His work on the science advisory board will deal with the social aspects of conservation as well as its science.

Kusel said he enjoyed working with American Forests as the editor of “Understanding Community-Based Forest Ecosystem Management,” a book the group published in 2001. He added that he particularly likes the interdisciplinary nature of the science advisory board.

“As a social scientist, I’ve had years of discussions between environmentalists and industry,” Kusel said. “We have long left out a community voice in these discussions.”

He added that he enjoys working with interdisciplinary teams because they help to make sure that the community isn’t ignored in conversations between scientists and industry leaders. He called for an emphasis on “triple-bottom-line work: environment, economy, equity.”

During the administration of President Calvin Coolidge, American Forests donated the first living national Christmas tree to the White House.

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