A Pioneer in Forest Genetics
Reflects on Five Decades in Forestry

After five decades spent improving forest management in some of the world's most vulnerable regions, Jeffery Burley has valuable insights into the trends that have re-shaped the global forestry sector. But one thing, he says, hasn't changed: People still need forests.
While conducting an undergraduate research project at Oxford in the late 1950s, Jeffery Burley ’62 M.F. ’65 Ph.D. reviewed an article in Forest Science, the journal of the Society of American Foresters, which would change his life.
The article, on the genetics of slash pine, was co-authored by François Mergen, a pioneer in the field who taught forest genetics at what was then known as the Yale School of Forestry and who would eventually become its dean.
jeffery burley
Oxford Forestry Institute
Jeffery Burley
Burley, who at the time was studying the chromosomes of several conifer species, remembers seeing an illustration in the paper that made him think to himself — which he now recalls with a laugh — “I can do better than that!” More importantly, he knew that he wanted to work alongside Mergen at Yale.
Over the next several years Burley would indeed work alongside Mergen as he earned a Master’s degree and Ph.D. at Yale. Burley, whose work across the globe during five decades has helped transform the field of forest research, says his career accomplishments might not have been possible without the years he spent at Yale — or without his mentor.
“I remember, we had to be in the Greeley Lab before [François] arrived each morning, at 8 o’clock, and we had to be there long after he left, late at night,” Burley says. “All of us hesitated to be the first to claim that we were tired and wanted to go home.
“I wouldn’t want to face that again now, but I am certainly glad I did it because it not only gave me the knowledge but the discipline to plan and conduct a decent research program.”
Burley, who is an Emeritus Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford University, and the former Director of the Oxford Forestry Institute,will return to F&ES this weekend to receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In the years since he left Yale, Burley and his colleagues have helped to improve forestry practices throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and in vulnerable forest regions across the world.
After completing his Ph.D. at Yale in 1965, Burley spent four years in Central Africa. Working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he helped set up research laboratories in forest genetics and tree breeding that would strengthen research and forest resources in the three nations then known as the Federation of Central Africa (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi).
“It was a great experience that resulted in quite a few publications,” he said. “But more importantly we had some impact on the development of their national programs — at least two of which are still very active and productive.”
He then returned to Oxford, where he would spend the rest of his career in three different roles: as the genetics research officer in the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, as a University Lecturer in Forestry, and most recently as Director of the Oxford Forestry Institute and Professor of Forestry in the University. But through the years Burley also has done extensive consultancy work for a wide range of developing countries, agencies, NGOs, and charities.
He says that many factors influence the success of research organizations. They need strong, creative and supportive leadership at all levels; encouragement of staff and recognition of successful outcomes; political and financial support from the organization and policymakers; appropriate equipment (although “not necessarily the latest in a catalogue”); and the ability and willingness of staff at all levels to communicate their work for a range of audiences, including peers, administrators, media, and the public.
“Above all,“ he said, “it requires skilled, experienced, cooperative and dedicated staff where cooperation includes collaboration with staff of other disciplines, institutions, and countries.”
Throughout his career he has also been a member of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the largest global network of forest researchers. In 1972 he established the first Working Party dealing specifically with tropical forest genetics with longtime colleague Garth Nikles, a tree breeder in the Queensland Department of Forestry in Australia. From 1996 until 2000 he was IUFRO’s president. “That,” he says, “had always been a professional aspiration.”
While reflecting on five decades spent in the forestry sector, Burley calls attention to the themes selected by IUFRO through the years for its World Congresses. As suggested by their titles — from “Forestry in a World of Limited Resources” in 1976 to “Linking Technology and Tradition” in 2005 — it’s clear, he says, that the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same: People need forests.
But he has also observed some definitive trends that have re-shaped forest management worldwide.
After the Second World War everyone wanted to re-use or recreate forests, simply for production… That has changed due to recognition of the environmental and social benefits of forests.
— Jeffery Burley ’62 M.F. ’65 Ph.D.
One of the most important trends, he says, has been the growing political awareness of forestry, from national governments to multi-national agencies. Likewise, there has been increased public awareness of the ecological importance of forests — and of how they are used.
“After the Second World War everyone wanted to re-use or recreate forests, simply for production — for timber, for various purposes,” he said. “That has changed due to recognition of the environmental and social benefits of forests.
“But, I have to say, none of this is new. People knew about this 200 years ago! So we ought to not keep rediscovering wheels.”
He has also watched as technology — from molecular genetics to remote sensing and innovative wood conversion and use technologies— has continuously re-shaped the field. He has observed the increasingly important role of private interests in forest management, and the rising influence of multi-disciplinary collaboration.
And critically, he has has witnessed a growing recognition for the importance of research — as well as development and application — in facing the strategic and tactical challenges.
As the world demand for diversified forest resources continues to surge — and climate change alters ecosystems everywhere — there is a greater need for human ingenuity to deliver sound forest management solutions, Burley says.
When he was working for UNESCO back in the 1960s, he recalls hearing the agency’s top official say that “ humankind will by the powers of [its] intellect to overcome the challenges it faces”.
“That’s a pretty optimistic viewpoint,” Burley says today. “It might be a rather grand view of how clever we all are. But when you look over the whole of history, mankind has always survived and come up with some response.
“I think the major challenge now is social and socioeconomic rather than technical and scientific,” he adds. “I’m sure we could come up with a way to grow something anywhere. But the question is, ‘who owns it?’ And who owns the land? And what’s the future resource structure going to be? Not so much what we grow, but how is it going to be maintained.”
PUBLISHED: October 7, 2015
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.