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Forestry Goes Global
The selection of an engineer to head the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies marks a fundamental shift in the way it looks at the world.

Forestry is not what it used to be. In myth, the forester was a solitary, leathery-skinned logger, ax on shoulder, and able to scale the tallest tree or dance on a log running down a wildwater stream. Nowadays, that image has been replaced by one that is a bit more, well, corporate.

The modern forester, armed with laptop computer and cellular telephone, probably considers himself—or herself—a forest manager, and like managers of every persuasion, the guardians of the timber must somehow balance the conflicting demands that come with the wooded territory. There’s profit and loss, of course, as well as dealing with habitat preservation, recreation, endangered species, and the like. Managing the woods, not to mention the larger environment, now requires infinitely more than lacing on hobnailed boots and wielding a crosscut saw.

In keeping with this new picture, Yale broke with tradition last year, and to head the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies named not a forester but an engineer. He is Jared L. Cohon, 45, the first nonforester to serve as dean of FES in the school’s 93-year history. (Cohon succeeds John C. Gordon, who stepped down as Forestry School dean in 1992 to resume teaching as the Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies.)

Most recently vice provost for research at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Cohon was also a professor of geography and environmental engineering. (He also found time to serve as a jazz and rock drummer in an infamous faculty and graduate student band called “The New Crusty Nostrils.”) Cohon’s appointment represents “an acknowledgment of the fact that the school has grown beyond a single focus,” says William H. Smith, Clifford R. Musser Professor of Forest Biology. “It’s not in any way a diminution of our respect for forestry or the need to produce professional foresters. It simply reflects our broadened perspectives.”

Those perspectives could hardly have been imagined by Gifford Pinchot, a member of the Yale College class of 1889, who helped found the Yale School of Forestry in 1900 and went on to establish the U.S. Forest Service. For decades the school served as a training ground for both government and private industry, but with environmental awareness growing in the 1960s, the focus began to change. In 1972 the institution changed its name to the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and expanded its curriculum accordingly. FES now trains students whose interests range widely, from tracking down plants with potential medical value in the rain forests of Surinam to maximizing pine production in South Carolina, from ensuring industrial compliance with environmental regulations to framing environmental legislation in this country and abroad.

Smith predicts that regardless of which continent FES graduates wind up on, they’ll benefit from a technological innovation for which the new dean is partly responsible. Cohon, who is widely considered by his colleagues to be a first-rate teacher and a skilled interdisciplinarian, is known internationally for his landmark work in what is called both multiple criteria decision-making and multiobjective programming. By either name, the research involves the development of sophisticated computer programs that help leaders make decisions in situations where there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer—in other words, in just about every situation involving the natural environment.

“We’re trying to produce people who can go out and solve problems,” says Smith. “Multiobjective decision-making is exactly what our students will have to do as soon as they walk out our doors.”

Environmentalists have long turned to computerized decision-making for help in digesting information, synthesizing it, and learning the consequences of a particular action. But until Cohon began his work, the available programs suffered from a fundamental flaw. “They could only deal with a single objective—the typical approach was either-or,” the new dean explains. “For example, if you were attempting to make a river-basin development plan, the programs could tell you which plan minimized costs or maximized economic benefits, but let’s face it, public decisions are never based on a single criterion. They’re characterized by several competing, and often conflicting, objectives.” Using Cohon’s techniques, decision-makers can present the various elements of a project on a computer screen and explore the implications of any set of choices. “This approach doesn’t make decision-making any easier,” notes Cohon. “It simply makes it better informed.”

Cohon’s approach has already proved helpful to local, state, regional, and federal agencies grappling with problems as disparate as the proper configuration of naval battle groups to the most efficient way to operate the Potomac River Basin reservoirs. Multiobjective programming enabled the city of Baltimore, for example, to decide on the best locations for its fire protection system. The Electric Power Research Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employed the approach in determining the location and impact of power plants. And the federal Department of Energy worked with multiple criteria decision-making to come up with the best routes for the transport and disposal of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants.

Ironically, as valuable as Cohon’s approach has been in dealing with environmental dilemmas, the usual environmental pursuits—bird-watching, mountaineering, hunting, fishing, and so forth—are conspicuously absent in the dean’s background. Married with one child, he spends most of his off-duty time at home with his family. “Thoreau I’m certainly not,” he admits with his genial, trademark good humor. “I’m also not someone who spent days in the woods, and I have no training in forestry. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and early on, I wanted to be a civil engineer and build things, especially bridges.”

Cohon went to the University of Pennsylvania for just that purpose. “But a funny thing happened,” he recalls. “In the midst of a very traditional engineering program, I had a professor who inspired me. It should happen to everybody.”

The professor was Iraj Zandi, who taught environmental engineering at Penn, and had started a project on solid waste transport. Zandi needed a student to help with the research, and Cohon was soon traveling a different career path; the bridges he’d build would be more metaphorical than real.

After graduation, in 1969, Cohon enrolled at MIT in an environmentally oriented doctoral program inspired by the ecological fervor of that era. “I started as a grad student on the same day two key faculty members came onboard,” he explains. “MIT was assembling a water and environmental systems analysis team that included economists, hydrologists, and water engineers, so I was there during that wonderful, creative time when a program is starting to figure itself out.”

The group soon received a major United Nations grant to attempt a pioneering planning study in Argentina that would use systems analysis and economics to chart a course of orderly development for the Rio Colorado river basin. “The country needed help,” said Cohon, who received his doctorate in 1973. “The government was interested in developing the river for hydroelectric power and irrigation, but there’d been shooting wars between the provinces over water.”

In helping to craft a plan that would strike a balance all sides could live with, Cohon brought his expertise in water-resources and water-quality management to the project. He brought something else as well: familiarity with the mathematical techniques that enabled the political, economic, and environmental compromises inherent in decision-making to be translated into a computer program that allowed leaders to weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. According to Hugh Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins, “The system Jerry designed acts as a bridge between engineering and science on one hand, and policy on the other.”

Cohon’s book, Multiobjective Programming and Planning (Academic Press, 1978), is considered required reading for anyone interested in the field, and he and his colleagues have published more than 80 scientific papers, reviews, and reports in scholarly journals and books that detail the procedure and its applications.

Charles S. ReVelle, a professor in the geography department at Johns Hopkins, has collaborated with Cohon for more than 15 years. He praises his colleague’s tenacity, noting that “Jerry keeps hours like Thomas Edison. It’s really quite extraordinary. Here’s a typical story. In 1975, we were doing a project on location and relocation alternatives for the Baltimore fire department, and we ran into a problem, which we despaired of ever solving in time because we didn’t have the computer resources we have today. Jerry took it home, and solved it, by hand, over the weekend! He’s definitely the kind of guy you’d want on your team.”

ReVelle, who recently used the multiobjective approach to attack a forestry problem in which profits from timber harvest had to be balanced against the proper amount of acreage required by the forest’s inhabitants for forage and nesting, explains that when Cohon was developing his techniques, the use of computers in decision-making had a bad reputation. “The decision-making field was focused on solving single-objective problems,” he says. “That left the analyst—that is, the person who solves the problem—in the uncomfortable and untenable position of saying to a decision-maker: ‘Well, here’s your answer.’ Nothing is more guaranteed to get you thrown out the door than to tell someone who has many concerns and constituencies to balance that there’s a single answer to anything, whether it’s a public policy, an industrial, or an environmental problem,” says the researcher.

G. Gordon Wolman, a long-time geography professor at Johns Hopkins who chaired Cohon’s department, explains that his colleague’s research expertise enables him to “see the field as a whole. Jerry is a superb modeler, and though modelers sometimes tend to substitute the model for reality, he’s not of that ilk. He has a nice feel for the real world and real-world problems, and he can demonstrate why modeling is an essential tool if you’re going to try to make sense out of anything.” Says Cohon: “I’m trying to bring tree-hugging into the language of management by providing a technology base that allows the forest manager, the corporate manager, and the bureaucrat at epa to analyze problems and structure solutions that are responsive to the whole range of constituencies they serve.”

But the new dean also cautions that technology is not enough these days. Indeed, since his arrival, Cohon and the school’s faculty have engaged in some soul-searching in an attempt to define a focus for their mission. The phrase they came up with—the ecosystem paradigm—captures a way of looking at the environment that’s much broader than the utilitarian view of the natural world that has often prevailed in the past.

“We’re saying that to understand and properly manage natural ecosystems, that is, any natural system involving populations of animals and plants, you must understand the system of which they’re a part and the relationships among them,” Cohon explains. “The world abounds with the evidence of our failure to comprehend what seems like such a simple thing.”

So instead of narrow specialists, Cohon wants to train a cadre of students who are, in essence, systems analysts—student who see the forest and the trees, as well as the links between them. “The ecosystem paradigm also means understanding how to put nature in a human context,” he says. “It’s in this school where the natural sciences meet the social sciences.”

Cohon says he wants to make sure that the up-and-coming generation of environmental professionals will be well-grounded in the “no-compromise scientific approach we’ve always taken." But he also wants the future foresters, water-resource managers, public-sector policy analysts, regulators, and corporate environmental executives among them to leave the school with such tools as economics, business management, philosophy, public health, and law in their problem-solving tool kits.

In addition, students can expect much more exposure to the corporate world. When Cohon was named vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins in 1986, he devoted a considerable portion of his administrative life to building bridges between university scientists and industry. The outreach effort is starting to bear fruit, he notes, and he’s excited about a similar effort started at Yale by his predecessor in the deanship.

Last summer, John Gordon inaugurated the “Corporate Environmental Leadership Seminar” which brought more than a dozen high-level private and public sector managers to Yale for a three-week “total immersion” course in environmental science, history, law, philosophy, and policy. The program—the first of its kind in the nation—is designed around a premise that lies at the heart of what many are calling the “third wave” of environmentalism.

The first wave, typified by Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, called for preservation. The second wave, championed by Rachel Carson, was characterized by regulation. In the third wave, the hope is to forge a mutually beneficial relationship between the environment and economics.

In a talk at last summer’s seminar, Fred Krupp, ’75, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, explained that the third wave was “not about compromise—the environment can’t stand much more—but about finding ‘win-win’ solutions.”

The Corporate Seminar, along with shorter programs the Forestry School now offers, is intended as a way to bring people together to locate common ground. “For a long time, industry has been viewed as the enemy, and the ‘we-they’ attitude has been prevalent,” Gordon notes. “But we now realize that the big environmental levers lie in the for-profit sector. If you want to make things better fast, you have to get the information to industry that it needs to improve environmental understanding. There’s been a reluctance among environmentalists to do this, but that attitude is changing.” The exchange also makes sense for the school and its students, notes Cohon: “The feedback helps us to know what students need to be effective when they leave here.”

Any such partnership holds the potential for financial rewards: for individual researchers, for the institution involved, and for the surrounding community. At Johns Hopkins, Cohon was a leader in what is known as “technology transfer.” In an effort to bring the fruits of basic research from the laboratory to the marketplace, he was instrumental in setting up the Triad Investment Corporation, a venture capital company independent of the university with $10 million in assets. Triad, which began operations in 1990, is currently nurturing projects in the areas of materials processing, filtration technology, and health. One endeavor, the development of a high-tech vision-enhancement system for people with a variety of eyesight problems, is close to the prototype stage—and attracting the interest of companies interested in making the product a commercial success.

Cohon also played an important role in the formation of the Maryland Bioprocessing Center, a joint venture involving state and local government, private industry, and private and public universities to promote biotechnology. There is, he feels, no reason why similar efforts couldn’t flourish in New Haven.

“I definitely see opportunities for the Forestry School,” says the dean, adding that he’s aware of the dangers posed by the often uneasy collaborations of the marketplace and the academy. “Certainly, it’s undesirable for the commercial tail to wag the academic dog. On the other hand, we hurt ourselves by being so pure that we don’t think about commercial possibilities.”

No doubt Gifford Pinchot, whose forestry training in France in 1890 included the admonition that “you must manage a forest and make it pay,” would approve. But Aldo Leopold, ’09MF, the conscience of the conservation movement, would also find reason to smile. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” Leopold wrote in his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac.

Cohon embodies both of those sentiments. But he is clearly not content just to reflect on them. “Our students come here with environmental stars in their eyes, and we certainly don’t want to reduce their fervor,” he says. “But we’re going to redefine forestry, and define environmental management. We’re going to shake things up.”  the end


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