Fiona Watt joined DEC on February 21, 2023, after more than 25 years at NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. Photo Courtesy NYSDEC

We at the NYSUFC are pleased to reprint this piece, with permission, from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Lands and Forests Director and New York State Forester Fiona Watt. It first appeared in the internal NYSDEC publication, The Understory.

Fiona Watt: 

As I settle into my new role at DEC, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to share a little about myself and some quick thoughts for the future.

Growing up, I didn’t plan to be a forester despite spending my childhood in rural Vermont, with a forest in my backyard. But the forest shaped me. It was a place to explore, learn, and daydream. We tapped maple trees, hiked and skied old logging trails, and dunked in freezing mountain streams. At 14, my parents yanked me and my siblings from our idyllic rural life to live in the suburbs of New York City. I think that move set my professional course back towards the forest, although it took me a while to get there. After college, where I majored in history but minored in environmental studies, I considered law school with the idea of pursuing environmental law. But I was dating a law school student (now my husband), and boy, it did not look fun. It took going to forestry school to see the forest for the trees, to understand the complex ecological dynamics at work in such landscapes, and to recognize and understand the impacts of people on the land over time. Much of my career since has been spent trying to bottle the spirit and benefits of the forest and bring it to urban dwellers.

During my downstate career, I had many touchpoints with DEC. When the Asian long-horned beetle (ALB) was discovered in 1996 in New York City, I worked closely for 14 years with DEC and other state and federal agencies on the Cooperative ALB Advisory Board and Task Force. I remember going to Prall’s Island on a DEC Region 2 boat with a large contingent of city, state, and federal officials to remove hundreds of infested trees. DEC was also a partner when we returned trees—a million of them—to the urban forest through the MillionTreesNYC campaign from 2008 to 2016. Through the New York State Urban Forestry Council, I’ve appreciated the networking opportunities and professional development experiences that ReLeaf provides to urban forestry practitioners and other interested enthusiasts. DEC’s programmatic support and leadership in Urban and Community Forestry is critical in bringing small communities and large municipalities together to join the chorus spreading the benefits of urban trees.

As a public land manager, I’ve pursued collaborations with researchers to support adaptive management through data-driven decision making. The Forest Service Northern Research Station has been a strong partner on urban forest assessment projects, stewardship, wood utilization research, and was a co-founder of the New York City Field Station. I once helped a researcher studying climate change from the Columbia Lamont Earth Observatory Lab core trees on an island in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. It was a brutally hot summer day, and we battled huge mosquitos rivaling any found in the Adirondack wilderness. Turns out, we are currently working with that same researcher on a Natural Heritage Foundation-led study of old growth in the Forest Preserve.

Mount Loretto Unique Area, Staten Island. From left: Fiona Watt–Director of Lands & Forests, Patrick Foster–Regional Director, Susan Maresca–Natural Resources Supervisor, Rob McDonald–Regional Operations Supervisor, and Tim Wenskus–Supervising Forester. The group convened for a March 2023 visit to DEC Region 2 where they also visited Saint Francis Woodlands, Todt Hill Woods, Pouch Camp, and the beech forest of North Mount Loretto. Photo Courtesy NYSDEC

As for new growth, we are facing a critical challenge in scaling our nature-based solutions for addressing climate change—the scarcity of native plant material. The solution starts with seed collection and propagation. In my mind, there is no more magical place than the cool, still air of NYC Parks’ seed bank at the Greenbelt Native Plant Nursery in Staten Island. There, seed collectors in the plant conservation program forage the metropolitan region for seed stock from native plant genotypes, with the goal of expanding the native plant supply chain to support the growing demands of ecological restoration projects. I had the same feeling standing in the cold room—a precious living library of seed stock—at the Col. William F. Fox Memorial Saratoga Tree Nursery during a recent visit. However, some empty glass storage containers on the shelves point to the difficulties in securing seeds for our future forests, from collection challenges to the reduction in seed generation from climate-impacted trees. We must build and support a robust native plant supply chain in order to sustain and grow healthy forests and achieve our climate goals.

DEC is a leader in public and private forest preservation and conservation, and I simply marvel at the scope of our purview, a rural-urban gradient that ranges from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. Our portfolio is vast, magnificent, and cherished by so many. Our challenge is to keep our forests as forests for future generations while balancing current uses; respond to the impacts of climate change and economic uncertainty; and implement sustainable and equitable environmental investments in underserved communities.

As I enter my third month at DEC, I have so much to be thankful for. First is the opportunity to begin to get to know colleagues and partners in their work. I’ve visited staff in Warrensburg and toured the Forest Health Diagnostic Lab in Delmar (with a great tour of the wildlife facility as well). I’ve contemplated the threat of the round goby from “lock” bottom (a lock of the Champlain Canal, that is). I had the opportunity to celebrate Tree City USA programs in Poughkeepsie, help plant a tree in Albany, strategize for the future at a beech forest doomed by beech leaf disease in Staten Island, and join a walk-through for plans to address visitor use management at the popular Blue Hole in the Catskill Preserve. I was fortunate enough to join a New York State delegation to share with and learn from other states about climate smart solutions for natural and working lands at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Even though I have barely scratched the surface, I have a palpable sense of and respect for the deep history of the Division of Lands and Forests, the agency, and the people who devote their professional lives to managing, conserving, and expanding the natural resources of our state.

I am truly honored and humbled to join this terrific team, build on relationships with our stakeholders and partners, and help articulate New York’s vision for our forests and the people who care about them. This is an unusual and perhaps exceptional moment for DEC, with state and federal funding opportunities that have not presented themselves in at least a generation. Yet the challenges are real, and to meet them we will have to be nimble, creative, and persistent. I have no doubt we are up to the task at hand.