5 Questions With Bill Toomey

Forest Health Program Director

Bill Toomey leads The Nature Conservancy's Forest Health Program. In this Q&A, find out what inspires him and why keeping our forests and trees healthy is so important.
"From tree-lined neighborhood streets to national parks, we count on trees to provide benefits today and for generations to come."

- Bill Toomey


What was the critical moment or event that inspired you to become a conservationist?

Bill Toomey:

I think it was a series of experiences and choices at critical moments that led me to work at The Nature Conservancy. I have always had a strong interest in science and nature, and as a kid, I was always in swamps and woods catching snakes and frogs. Taking my first ecology class as an undergrad at Fairfield University was one experience that led me to pursuing a career in environmental conservation. Other important events included: Sea Semester where I met my wife, moving to the California coast, backpacking in the Sierras and southwest, and pursuing a graduate degree in soil science and wetlands ecology. Each step along the way confirmed that I have chosen the right path.


Tell us about your background before working with the Conservancy.

Bill Toomey:

I had always wanted to work in the environmental field, and after getting my BS in Biology, I spent two years as an environmental consultant working in Massachusetts and California. While in California, I had the opportunity to get into the field of recycling and I managed the residential recycling and composting program for the city of San Jose. After working for 7 years, I decided to attend grad school at North Carolina State with the intention of getting my PhD, however after getting my Masters and going one semester into the PhD program I decided to stop and pursue a career with the Conservancy.

I worked for the Connecticut chapter and Massachusetts chapter for 10 years as a stewardship ecologist, a landscape project director and a major gift fundraiser. I left the Conservancy for 3 years to be an executive director of Highstead, a small nonprofit promoting conservation of the New England landscape and building conservation partnerships. In June of 2011 I had the opportunity to come back to The Nature Conservancy as the Forest Health Protection Program Director.


Why is it so important that we work to protect trees and forests from invasive insects?

Bill Toomey:

Trees and forests are an essential part of our lives, and they provide shade and shelter, jobs and products, and clean air and water. From tree-lined neighborhood streets to national parks, we count on trees to provide benefits today and for generations to come. Today many of North America’s trees and forests are being destroyed by non-native insects and diseases. These invaders are removing entire species of trees from our forests and neighborhoods threatening air, water, economies, and the quality of life in our communities.

A study published in the fall of 2011 by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at University of California, Santa Barbara, estimated that local governments are spending $1.7 billion and homeowners $830 million a year for tree removal, replacement, treatment of trees, and lost property value due to introduced non-native forest insects and diseases. Although it is a challenging issue, I feel that The Nature Conservancy and our partners are making a real difference, but like many major environmental issues, it will take a sustained effort over time to see success.


What projects are you most excited to work on for the Forest Health Program this year?

Bill Toomey:

There are many exciting initiatives and actions the program is trying to advance in collaboration with our many partners through the Continental Dialogue. This year I am most excited about two major initiatives: the Don’t Move Firewood Campaign and the Healthy Urban Tree Initiative. Our DMF campaign is a premiere national campaign designed to educate the public about their role in moving damaging forest pests via the movement of firewood. DMF provides people with positive proactive ways they can help minimize the impact of these damaging forest pests.

The Healthy Urban Tree initiative is a new approach designed to help maintain the health of urban forest resources and more effectively address the major threat that non-native tree pests pose to our trees and forests. The main goal of this initiative is to enable the earlier detection of new pest introductions to the United States and the earlier detection of known invasive pests into new locations. There are five major components to this initiative: 1) Establish national and local coordinating partnerships 2) Assess urban forest health 3) Develop information management, trainings and tools 4) Engage youth and the public in tree stewardship 5) Outreach and communications to raise public awareness. While the exploration and implementation of this initiative is at different stages depending on the location, several Conservancy chapters have expressed interest in advancing this approach in several major U.S. cities including: New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.


Where is the natural space that makes you feel most at home?

Bill Toomey:

I don’t think there is one place. I feel connected to nature in many ways whether it is trail running; hiking; walking the dog; tending to the garden, our chickens or bees; or spending time outside with the family. Of course we have our favorite places to visit which include: California coast, the eastern Sierras, the high deserts of Utah and Arizona, Cape Cod and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. But living in the beautiful New England landscape provides daily opportunity to connect to nature and feel thankful for all that we have.


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