By Christine McGowan, Forest Program Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

Meet Danielle Fitzko, the state’s new Director of Forests and the first woman to hold the position.

Danielle, or Danny to her friends and colleagues, spent the last 15 years growing the Urban and Community Forestry Program, designed to help communities plan, plant and care for their community trees. As Vermont’s new Director of Forests, she intends to bring to her new role the wealth of knowledge and experience she has gained connecting people to the incredible resource Vermont has in our forested landscapes.

“There is not a complete understanding of what good forest management looks like,” says Fitzko. “In recent years, forest industry leaders have worked hard to raise awareness about the working forest landscape, demonstrating the impact on Vermont’s rural economy, a clean environment, wildlife habitat, recreation, and overall well-being,” she says. “A good story helps connect Vermonters to the human side of our work, and allows them to picture themselves as an active part of our forestry community.”

That community includes the Division of Forest’s 60 employees she now oversees.

More Time in the Woods, Less Behind a Desk

A recent graduate of the Agency of Natural Resources’ Leadership and Management Program, one of Fitzko’s first tasks is to improve operational efficiency within the Division. The Director of Forests is responsible for a wide range of programming including state lands management, forest protection, private lands stewardship, marketing and utilization, watershed forestry, and urban and community forestry.

“As the needs and challenges of our forests have evolved, so we need to evolve some of our processes,” said Fitzko. “My main goal within the organization is to free up our foresters, biologists, arborists, and other professionals to spend more time in the woods or out interacting with people and communities, and less time doing paperwork behind a desk. Better use of technology, cultivating talent, and strategically aligning strengths within the Division and Department that also includes the Parks, Lands and Recreation Divisions, are high on my list of priorities. We have an incredible team with great depth of expertise and I want to enable them to do their best work.”

Fitzko also sees a role for enhanced collaboration among state agencies, non-profits, professional organizations, and within the industry. “We need to remove organizational silos and think strategically about how to align our work,” said Fitzko. Forests, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder agrees. “Danielle’s broad experience and leadership will serve us well as she works collaboratively with colleagues to understand the current issues and emerging needs, and to harness that information to develop strategic approaches to meet them,” said Snyder.

Education that Challenges Perceptions

“We are challenged by outdated perceptions of forestry—the idea that cutting a tree is bad,” said Fitzko. She believes that better communication about the role of forest management in keeping our forests healthy so that they will continue to provide for generations to come will help build a renewed interest in forestry and forest-related careers.

“We can do a better job talking to young people about the role of science and technology in modern forestry,” she said. “There are good jobs in the forest, and there is excellent work being done to improve safety and modernize the profession, but those stories are not getting out there.”

Fitzko’s vision, energy and optimism for the future of Vermont’s forests were among the reasons she was selected for the role from an international pool of applicants. “She has a proven record of setting a clear vision and establishing pathways to implementation,” said Snyder. Fitzko acknowledges that her new position expands the scope of her responsibility significantly. “I’ll be doing a lot of listening and learning,” she said. “However, I have deep rooted passion for Vermont’s forests, the profession of forestry, the mission of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and public service. I am excited to apply my skills where I believe I can have the greatest impact.”

Protecting Forests for the Future

One of Vermont’s most valued natural resources, Vermont’s forests face threats from seemingly every direction—invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer, climate change, a declining forestry workforce, and dwindling demand for low grade wood to name a few. Though well aware of these challenges, Fitzko has an optimistic view.

“I’m taking a big picture view, and a long-term vision for the health of Vermont’s forests,” said Fitzko. “We need to take a fresh look at how we are doing our job and find more ways to collaborate, communicate, innovate, and energize the next generation of workers in our forest and wood products industry. There is already great work being done, and the Division of Forests has an important role to play in supporting and furthering progress.”

While her title and responsibilities have changed, one thing will stay the same: she’ll be walking her Australian Shepherd, Acer (the genus of tree commonly known as maple), in the woods every morning for inspiration and restoration, and looking forward to exploring woodland wildflowers come spring.

About the Vermont Forest Industry Network

The Vermont Forest Industry Network will host the 2nd Annual Vermont Forest Industry Summit on May 2-3, 2019 at Burke Mountain Resort. Vermont’s forest products industry generates an annual economic output of $1.4 billion and supports 10,500 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating. The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates the space for industry professionals from across the entire supply chain and trade association partners throughout the state to build stronger relationships and collaboration throughout the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products, from high quality furniture to construction material to thermal biomass products such as chips and pellets. For more information please visit www.vsjf.org.