A Champion for Woodland Owners—and Students—Retires After Two Decades

Mary Tyrrell ’97 M.F.S. was in her early 40s when she decided to change careers and enrolled at F&ES. That mid-career transition would transform her life — and the School.

By Kevin Dennehy

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Mary Tyrrell had always considered herself an environmentalist, but it took her a while to make a career of it.
For years before enrolling at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies she’d worked in the digital technology sector. By the mid-1990s she was managing the implementation of manufacturing processes in emerging markets for one of the world’s earliest computer makers.
mary tyrrell profile Mary Tyrrell
But increasingly she felt the pull to do something else. Tyrrell, who lived in Boston at the time, regularly took night classes at the Harvard Extension School. Some subjects, like eastern art, she studied because she was simply curious. But others, such as environmental science and tropical forestry, pointed toward her future.
“The work I was doing was heady stuff, but at the same time I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Tyrrell recalled recently. “I was just trying to figure out how to make these products cheaper all the time. Was that the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life? I decided it wasn’t.”
While she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, she knew it would likely be in the environmental sector. And when in early 1994 she learned that the division of her company was for sale she decided it was time to make the move.
Her new path would lead Tyrrell to F&ES, where in the process of earning a master’s degree in forest science she fell in love with ecology. And while she would never have imagined it at the time, it led her to a community where she would spend the next 23 years of her life.
After graduation Tyrrell joined the staff of the School, eventually becoming director of the Yale-based Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, one of the several new centers that have since redefined the School’s role in the forest sector and how it connects faculty, students, industry, and alumni.
In the two decades since, she has also mentored students, taught courses, coordinated the School’s summer orientation program, conducted research on the impacts of land use changes, and helped create a national program to improve stewardship of family-owned forestlands.
For Tyrrell, who will retire this month after 20 years on staff, it’s funny to think back on the concerns she’d had about coming to New Haven all those years ago. Back then, as both an older incoming student and the product of working-class Fall River, Mass., she arrived at F&ES for an open house with reservations about whether she’d fit in at Yale.
“I remember talking to Bill Smith, who was on the faculty at the time. I was 42 at the time, so I said, “What’s it going to be like for me here?’ He said, ‘It’ll be fine! We have older students all the time — you’ll fit right in!’ And he was right.”
Like just about every other student in those years, Tyrrell took terrestrial ecosystems during her first semester, as well courses on soils, environmental chemistry and hydrology. What she wanted most was to learn about forest ecology.
Having grown up skiing and hiking in the White Mountains, she felt a natural pull toward the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, a pioneering research project based at a 3,160-hectare reserve in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. It was there that she first worked with vital mentors like Tom Siccama, a revered professor of forest ecology, and Kristiina Vogt, a former ecosystem management professor at F&ES who would become dean of the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources.
It was intellectually exciting because of all the science going on.
— Mary Tyrrell
“It was intellectually exciting because of all the science going on,” Tyrrell says. “I learned a lot about the boring, tedious, grunt fieldwork you have to do to get ecology science done. I also learned a lot about how to critically look at data that come from the field!”
Her work at Hubbard Brook included an examination of a decline in red spruces that had occurred at mid-elevations during the 1960s and ’70s before, inexplicably, rebounding in the early ’80s. She looked at the impacts of climate, of soil, of water.

She also had a chance to get her hands dirty. She remembers one day when Siccama excitedly told her that a swath of spruce trees was being cleared nearby, and that he’d brokered a deal whereby Tyrrell would have access to cross-section cuts of the wood in exchange for helping to move the trees.

“I said, ‘What?’ And Tom said, ‘Yeah, I told them that you’re going to help them clear the trees!’ Yeah, right, me. Five-foot-two, 40-something and with no upper body strength,” she recalls with a laugh. “Are you kidding me?”
mary tyrrell yale 1995 Mary Tyrrell, left, as a student, with classmates Ellen Denny ’97 M.F.S. and Paul Calzada ’97 M.E.M. during a "soils" class field trip.
Rather than haul the trees she ended up having to skin the bark off the trees with an axe, leaving her covered in spruce resin, so that the wood could be used for a makeshift bridge; in exchange she received samples of the wood for her research. Eventually she’d lug those samples to Greeley Lab where she drilled out tiny cores for wood chemistry analysis.
In the end her brief master’s research project didn’t produce any major revelations. But for Tyrrell, that was OK. “I just wanted to do something that was going to teach me more about ecology,” she said.
After graduating in 1997, Tyrrell spent several months working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, mapping roadless areas in the northern forest and collecting information about best forest practices. But the position was temporary, so when she heard from a friend at F&ES about a job at the School she applied.
Her first job at the School was with the now defunct Center for Coastal and Watershed Systems, where she eventually was named program director. But it was becoming clear to her that her passion was forests.
As it turned out, her timing was fortuitous. During the 1990s, F&ES was investing in a range of new centers and program to deepen its interactions beyond faculty research and classroom learning. A new group of initiatives would emerge as nexuses for scholarship, research, student learning, and outreach to alumni and the wider professional communities.
An early example was the Yale Forest Forum — created by former Dean John Gordon in the aftermath of the Seventh American Forest Congress — which incorporated a range of stakeholders to develop and articulate a vision of forest management for the 21st century.

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“It really was a golden era of entrepreneurial spirit at the School,” remembers Gary Dunning, a 1996 graduate of the School who would be tapped to run the Yale Forest Forum. “There was a huge effort, led by John Gordon, that enabled Yale to play a relevant role in discussing U.S. forest policy in a deep way, including through research but also through stakeholder agreement.”

Excited to return to forest issues, Mary Tyrrell joined GISF as a researcher in 2000. In the early days she organized expert forums on forestry-related topics. And she led a new program whose mission was to strengthen the School’s engagement with private forest owners.
“I don’t think she had a lot of prior experience in working with private landowners” Dunning recalls. “But she really took to it, really developed a strong love for the issue and the people she began to work with.”
She soon began studying how human changes to the land were impacting the health of forests and ecological systems. Over a decade she collaborated with Myrna Hall, a former professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, on a series of research projects in New York State, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Together they examined the impacts of land parceling and land use changes and — using modeling tools developed by Hall’s husband, Charles Hall — they were able to project what might happen if trends continued. One of Tyrrell’s studies, for instance, examined how land use changes were affecting the reservoirs that provide drinking water to New York City.
Her primary interest always has been in educating people... She’s a tremendous force for good analysis and a force for education.
— Mary Tyrrell
The research would eventually expand to incorporate peoples’ attitudes, including through surveys of landowners.
A signature of Tyrrell’s work, Hall remembers, was that she started every project by inviting as many people as possible from across the community into the conversation.
“Her primary interest always has been in educating people,” Hall says. “Not just in the university, but perhaps even more so in communities, so that they can better understand what’s happening to the landscape around them and how they can make a difference.”
“She’s one of the people I most respect of all the people I’ve worked with over the years,” she added. “She’s a tremendous force for good analysis and a force for education.”
Back at F&ES, meanwhile, Tyrrell came to accept an increasing number of roles. She became a mentor for the School’s forestry students, giving advice on building class schedules that best met their professional goals and helping them navigate academic life. For years she taught a course, with retired F&ES Prof. Ann Camp, on invasive species. And in recent years she has coordinated the summer orientation for incoming students (known as MODs).
And she would eventually become director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry. In that role she helped organize and run conferences, hosted an annual field educational program for visiting Indian Forest Service professionals and, critically, increased the School’s outreach to private forest owners.
mary tyrrell great mountain Tyrrell, fourth from left, with women foresters from the Indian Forest Service, F&amp;ES students, and forestry officials at the White Mountain National Forest.
For many involved in forest conservation and management there had long been concerns about the general lack of knowledge of how U.S. private forest owners managed their lands. About one-third of all forestland in the U.S. is owned by private individuals or families, but in most cases these owners don’t develop long-term management plans — a fact that leaves vast expanses of property vulnerable to degradation, fragmentation, and development.
In 2003, Tyrrell joined a small group of individuals from business, government, academia, and the NGO community to discuss strategies for addressing this challenge. Those early discussions — convened by F&ES alum Scott Wallinger, a retired senior vice president at MeadWestvaco and proponent of sustainable development — would mark the beginning of the Sustaining Family Forests Initiative (SFFI).
And since its beginning Mary Tyrrell has guided its growth.
The Sustaining Family Forests Initiative, which now receives funding from the U.S. Forest Service, has trained more than 1,200 natural resources professionals from 400 organizations over the past decade. They have hosted more than 44 workshops in 31 states.
At these workshops, Tyrrell and her team have helped these professionals better understand the attitudes and behaviors of landowners and develop strategies to meet their landscape goals by engaging these landowners in stewardship and conservation actions.
The process helped bridge a gap between the needs of landowners and the resources available from forestry professionals, said Brett Butler, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service and former co-director of the SFFI.

“The family forest owners are trying their best to be good stewards and want to have more knowledge of what to do with their land,” he said. “But a lot of them don’t know what to do.”
She’s able to make people feel welcome, to get different voices heard. And it’s not just that they’re able to speak. She hears them.
— Mary Tyrrell
Butler, who coordinates the U.S. National Woodland Owners Survey, says there has long been data on forest owners. But for years there weren’t many opportunities to do much with that data.
“So through this process that Mary was pivotal in starting we were able to harness this information that we were collecting and turn it into something that at a lot of people were able to access and utilize in improving the programs that they were conducting with family forest owners.”
One of Tyrrell’s strengths, Butler said, is that she is equally comfortable communicating with scientists and funders, landowners and policymakers, even though they might have very different goals and speak different languages.
“She’s able to make people feel welcome, to get different voices heard,” he added. “And it’s not just that they’re able to speak. She hears them.”
That has been particularly true for landowners, said Dunning. She understands that every region, and that every owner, is different. And she illustrates that she’s interested in listening to their stories.
“With landowners, you have to earn their trust,” Dunning said. “And it’s not as easy as building a partnership with industry or the government. Landowners work on personal relationships, and if they don’t trust you you’re not going to get very far.
“Mary demonstrated that she was able to earn the trust of that community to the point where she was able to build a really strong, successful program.”
For the past year and a half, Katherine Hollins, program manager for SFFI and the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, has had an up-close perspective on how Mary Tyrrell does her job.
One of the reasons for her success, she says, particularly when it comes to communicating with a range of audiences, is simply her frankness. (“I don’t know if it’s her Boston upbringing, but she doesn’t dance around stuff… I find it really refreshing.”)
But beyond that, she said, it also comes down to Mary’s passion — for nature, for her work, for the School.
“Mary cares about a lot of things, and she really puts her heart into them,” she said. “She’s so passionate about F&ES and the students here. But it goes beyond the School. You can tell she’s just passionate about making a difference.”