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Archive → October, 2021

PA’s Forester Jim Finley Enters the Forest Cathedral

Penn State forestry professor emeritus, department head, and all-things-forestry guru Jim Finley died yesterday. I was told that he was either felling a large tree on his property, or he was trying to dislodge a large tree that had been felled but was hung up on another tree. Whatever the actual facts are, Jim died from the tree falling on him. It is a reminder that even the best, most experienced forestry professionals are at grave risk.

As trite and awkward as it sounds to write here, the fact is that Jim Finley died doing what he loved in the environment he considered sacred. I am quite sure that had he been asked about whether he would like to die from a tree falling on him, or some more peaceful and less traumatic way, he would have given us the look he is giving below. It is that knowing “Why are you saying that, you know it is wrong” look. In his mid-70s, Jim was nowhere ready to leave us, and we were nowhere ready to let go of him.

His death is a huge loss.

Jim was a remarkable man, who I admired, and who left a way outsized hand print on Pennsylvania conservation and the practice of forestry in eastern America. He was a force to be reckoned with, an institution in his own right, a political-cultural movement, a gentle soul with a will of iron, kind and easy but also passionate and unrelenting.

He did not suffer fools easily, though he accepted honest debate and earnest dissent exactly the way an academic ought to: His eyes took on this hard laser focus, and you could tell he was actively listening and processing, not always ready to give an answer, either. His response might come tomorrow or next year, and if your argument was good, you could tell it had moderated Jim’s perspective.

Jim Finley was an academic, and sometimes prone to the idealism that academics naturally grow into. However, he also had the ability to be hands-on practical, and even more important, he had the ability to support aggressive, hands-on, totally practical forestry practices. You know, the kinds of visual impacts that most urbanites recoil in horror from, and which many land conservation groups really did not want to see, either, no matter how scientifically they were needed or justified. It is an admirable and rare trait to be able to be honest about unpleasant things, and Jim could look at a heavily cut tract with tree tops lying all over the place, and cheerfully explain all of the wonderful things that were now going to follow on the heels of all that disturbance. Because of Jim, conservation easements in Pennsylvania are now a lot more forestry-friendly than they used to be. And a landowner who is able to manage his or her forest as aggressively as they need to under a conservation easement, is a landowner who is much more likely to sign that easement and protect their land in the first place.

Jim invited me to speak to his classes a couple of times, and we worked together when I was at DCNR and the Conservation Fund. I knew him when I was a kid in State College, I knew him as a professional forester and academic at Penn State, and I knew him as a colleague of land conservation legend and Penn State forester Joe Ibberson, whose PSU forestry department endowment Jim presided over at the end of his formal career. It is always a huge loss when someone of Jim’s high caliber leaves us, but it is even more so when he was just starting to become mature, as he would put it in the terms of a tree.

So long, old friend. Happy travels in your peaceful forest cathedral. We who are left behind mourn your untimely departure and we will miss you greatly. You were a hell of a guy, Jim.

Wooden bowls and a vase turned by Jim Finley. Photo kindly provided by forester Dale G.

Charlie Gerow is a good guy

Turns out long time lobbyist and current candidate for Pennsylvania governor Charlie Gerow experienced an odd vehicle accident earlier this year, which has just now come to light in a police report and semi-journalistic analysis by the ardently partisan PennLive.

As reported by the State Police, Charlie was driving home towards the Harrisburg area on the PA Turnpike in the stretch through Chester County, when his car was hit from the side and from behind by a motorcyclist.

The motorcyclist, Logan Abbott, aged 30, who from descriptions sounds like an awesome all-American kind of man, became deceased on the scene after he crashed his borrowed motorcycle, for which he was not licensed, into Gerow’s car at around 9:30 PM. Abbott was thrown from the bike, and then subsequently struck by multiple high-speed vehicles as he was in the Turnpike roadway; he died from one or all of those impacts. I don’t know of any good way to die other than in your sleep, and this death has to be one of the saddest ways to go. I am really sorry for Logan and for Logan’s family. I have kids; as a parent, this is about the worst thing I could hear in my life. Hugs to you from our family, Abbott family.

My friend Dan, a brain surgeon and psychiatrist, calls many young men driving motorcycles “motor donors,” because of their dangerous hot-dogging ways and the resulting high body count statistics. Young men on motorcycles make up a huge proportion of annual highway injuries and deaths. And then donating a lot of young, healthy organs.

From what witnesses saw, Gerow was driving in the right lane at regular highway speed, Abbott was passing Gerow, and then swerved into his car. The rest is sad history. The police report surmises that Abbott was inexperienced at driving the motorcycle and made a fatal error.

Gerow was eventually pulled over by State Police several miles down the road, because the motorcycle was lodged under the front of his car. Witnesses reported seeing the motorcycle stuck in the front of the car and throwing sparks. People are wondering what the hell happened after the impact, and why didn’t Charlie pull over immediately.

Here is my take on what happened:

  • The impact came from behind and from the side of Charlie’s car, where he could not see, or at least he could not see very well. We drivers are always focused in front of us when we are driving, especially so on a turnpike with a 70 MPH speed zone. Charlie did not see and could not see what happened.
  • The motorcycle driver never appeared in Charlie’s view.
  • The motorcycle never appeared in Charlie’s view.
  • The motorcycle was lodged under the hood of the car, and out of Charlie’s vision. It would be difficult to see any time, and especially at night, when you can’t see very far ahead and you are looking as far ahead as you can.
  • Charlie probably thought he had hit some road debris, of which there is a TON on the Turnpike. Back in the early 1980s, I hit a dead deer lying flat in the middle of the PA Turnpike’s right lane, and it became lodged up under the car’s carriage. My Chrysler K Car rode up on top of the deer like a skateboard for a couple hundred feet before it became dislodged and the car regained its straight trajectory. That was a close call. Today there are lots of dead deer and tons of tractor trailer tires all over the Turnpike.
  • When Charlie realized he was carrying the road debris under his car, he probably thought it would eventually break off or break free, so he kept driving.
  • He may have realized it was not going to break free any time soon, and like any sane and experienced driver, Charlie was not going to pull over on the side of the Turnpike. No freaking way! That is the most dangerous area of any highway, and especially the PA Turnpike. If you get a flat tire on the PA Turnpike, you are best served by slowly limping to the next designated pull-off area and changing your flat there. If you pull off on the narrow roadside margin and try to operate there, you stand a good chance of being hit either by accident or ON PURPOSE by passing motorists.
  • For example, back in 2003 I was driving south at night on a regional highway, when three deer suddenly stepped right in front of my truck. Going 60 MPH, there was no time to stop or avoid impact, and in one second all three deer were scattered across the highway and my truck was severely damaged (but not disabled…it was a Toyota Tacoma). The State Police were immediately on the scene, and as we tried to pull the dead and dying deer out of the roadway, so that other motorists did not strike them and have subsequent accidents, I twice had a trooper grab my belt and yank me backwards. Why? Because as the trooper grimly stated to me matter-of-factly, a surprising number of vehicle drivers actually try to hit people who are alongside the side of the road. I could feel the whoosh of air go right past my face both times, and I could see both vehicles swerve back into the middle of their lane after they had each swerved onto the side of the road to try and hit me. The cops took it in stride as part of the daily risks they face.
  • Point being here, Charlie is a smart guy and he knows that the side of the PA Turnpike is the last place you go if you have some road debris stuck up under your car, if you can help it. You wait until you can pull into a well-lit, large, safe place where you aren’t going to be hit or carjacked.
  • Troopers who pulled over Charlie’s car then checked him for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and found none. Charlie was not impaired.
  • In sum, the conditions of this lamentable accident are a dark night on a busy and fast highway, in a place where road debris is common, and there are few places to safely pull over if you do have an accident or get some debris lodged up under your vehicle. The car driver was not responsible for the impact, did not see what happened at the moment of impact, and he did not see what his car was carrying up front subsequent to the impact. The driver was waiting to find the right place to pull off in order to safely inspect his vehicle, when the State Police pulled him over and told him what had happened.

I am sorry for the Abbott family on the loss of Logan. And I hope that Charlie Gerow, who is a good guy, is not artificially targeted here because of his politically incorrect political beliefs, or because of the Abbott family’s understandable grief. Logan made a mistake (his obituary notes that Logan “had just finished 14 days straight of 12-hour shifts and was looking forward to his 14 days off and camping with his family“), probably due to being exhausted from hard work, and Charlie did nothing wrong. It’s just a damned crappy tragedy, and we should not want to see an injustice done to one party because we are feeling aggrieved over the loss of the other.

And for the record, I am not committed to any candidates for governor right now, not even to Charlie. I do think Lou Barletta has already been in politics long enough and that he should be championing someone younger for PA governor, not seeking it himself. I don’t know how Charlie will fare among grassroots conservatives, because though he is a good guy, he is also a political lobbyist long associated with a political establishment many grassroots voters and activists have come to distrust and even revile.

Fake news doesn’t sleep. One of the reasons I wrote this essay is this kind of lie, from a website proclaiming itself, what else crooks and liars. Nowhere did anyone report a motorcyclist lodged in or stuck to Gerow’s car. Yet this 100% lie remains up on the website

Fake news headline…no one says a “motorcyclist was wedged to his car’s grill,” except on a website that deliberately tells lies like this. And the comments on the article show what gullible fools liberals are. No one stopped to question this outlandish claim or ask for facts.

Logan Abbott, great guy who made a small but costly mistake. Be careful on those motorcycles, folks

Charlie Gerow holding court in January 2015 with Governor Tom Corbett and PA movers and shakers. Note photo of JFK.