Q&A with Andy Finton

As much as Andy Finton enjoyed working in the field among his favorite trees — classic New England species like sugar maples and white pines — his role as director of conservation science in Massachusetts has shown him that he can do even more by working with people to protect his state’s re-emerging forests. We talked with Andy to find out what makes Massachusetts forests special and what the Conservancy is doing to protect them.
"We’re not trying to freeze forests in time, but to keep them diverse and functioning properly."

Andy Finton
Director of conservation science in Massachusetts

How did you first become interested in forests?

Andy Finton:

I’ve been fascinated by forests ever since my grandfather took me on fishing trips to Canada. Even at a young age, the difference between these vast, wild forests and my home in suburbia was very obvious to me. It’s amazing that childhood memories can have such an impact on the direction life takes.

Tell me something you think people don’t know about Massachusetts’ forests?

Andy Finton:

When I walk around Boston I sometimes wonder if people know how much forestland we have here. Some areas of our state are 90 percent forested, with many small communities tucked into vast swaths of canopy cover. We have over 3 million acres of forest in Massachusetts. Relative to our size, we’re the eighth most forested state.

Are there pros and cons of having so many people living so close to forests?

Andy Finton:

Definitely. One advantage we owe to our forests is exceptional water quality. Towns like Springfield and Pittsfield rely on reservoirs that are shielded by the Berkshire forests. Our water in Boston is protected by forests around the Quabbin reservoir. And these forests also sequester large amounts of carbon. In fact, forests in the Northeast absorb 12 to 15 percent of the carbon put into our atmosphere.

On the other hand, with so many landowners living in such close proximity to desirable forestland, development pressures are intense. The need for both protection and good stewardship is essential.

How are today’s threats to our forests different from those of the past?

Andy Finton:

Forests in our region are being fragmented and converted to development at an alarming rate. In the past, when forests were cleared for agriculture, they could still grow back. But roads, houses and other developments — so-called “hard” changes — tend to be permanent.

Also, the global economy has opened up new pathways for invasive insects and diseases that have no natural predators here. We’ve seen chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, caused by pathogens from the eastern hemisphere, wipe out forest trees as well as street trees that provide shade and oxygen in urban areas. Imported pests like the hemlock wooly adelgid and Asian longhorned beetle have now also appeared in Massachusetts. We’ve got to work locally to ensure that our forests that can survive such invasions — and nationally to prevent these pathogens and insects from being introduced in the first place.

What about climate change?

Andy Finton:

Climate change will affect different forest species in different ways. Some trees, like red oak, are at the northern end of their range and may actually expand their ranges here. But others, like red spruce, are at the southern end of their range and could fade away completely. Ecologists often talk about ecosystems breaking apart. This might sound harsh, but there are many uncertainties about how our forests will respond.

What we do know is that resilient ecosystems — those that are large, intact, connected and diverse — will recover best from wildfires, intense storms and the other stresses we expect from climate change.

How does forest policy connect to forest science?

Andy Finton:

Science underpins everything we do; our policy priorities flow from thinking about the outcomes we want on the ground. I think it’s neat that when Steve Long, our director of government relations, is in a suit at the State House working to pass a strong Environmental Bond Bill, he is affecting forests deep in the Berkshires — increasing funds for land protection and getting resources to help landowners manage their lands sustainably.

What about forestry?

Andy Finton:

Forestry — done carefully and sustainably — can support conservation by providing a disincentive for clearing for development while maintaining biodiversity and key ecosystem services for communities. We’re working closely with the state and private landowners to encourage practices that preserve characteristics of old-growth forests.

We’re not trying to freeze forests in time, but to keep them diverse and functioning properly — able to cleanse our air and water, provide homes for plants and animals and recreation for people. Forests are not museums of the past, but arenas for evolution.

Andy Finton is director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, where he is responsible for defining conservation goals, assessing threats and implementing conservation strategies. Andy holds a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Cornell University and an M.S. in Forest Ecology from the University of Massachusetts. His previous experience includes working with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program to develop the Commonwealth’s BioMap Project.


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