Jimmy O’Connor recently came to American Forests as our new senior director of major gifts. We’re excited for the experience, enthusiasm and new ideas he is bringing to the position and the organization — and we think you should be excited, too! From why he wanted to work in conservation to his favorite tree species, read more about Jimmy.
- Why did you choose to go into conservation?
The short answer is “my parents made me.” Now, let me explain why I say that. As a kid nearing the end of high school, I knew I would be going to college. Not having had the privilege themselves, my mother and father had made it clear to me that I would go to college — if for no other reason than to potentially have opportunities they themselves did not. Honestly, I was not thrilled with the idea of additional schooling. Knowing I had no way out of it, I figured I would at least pick a line of study that excited me. This was, and is, the field of conservation. I grew up hiking, camping, fishing and hunting and generally loved being outdoors. So, I chose to study Forest Resources Management at West Virginia University, where I learned not only a great deal about trees, but the importance of forests and other habitats for wildlife, recreation and the economy. I consider myself lucky to have been able to further my passion for conservation through my college studies — and even more lucky to make a career out of it.
- What aspects of American Forests’ work are you most excited to be a part of?
Without a doubt, the people. And, as great as my staff colleagues are, I mean the people who are not paid to be here. While much of my career has involved creating partnerships, I am thrilled to focus on building key relationships that will enable American Forests to greatly advance its mission. I am a firm believer in the power of giving and am excited to work with people who share a passion for conservation and wish to make a difference.
- What do you think are the most significant challenges facing forests today?
The same thing facing forests of the past — apathy. Life is full of competing demands and distractions. Standing up for forests is simply not a priority for many people. This is not for lack of want or will. Instead, through navigating the clutter of daily life, many people choose to believe others will do the “tree hugging stuff.” People realize forests are important, but unless rallied by a personal connection to the issue (a nearby woodlot cut down for development, sedimentation ruining a favorite fishing stream, etc.), then it’s not a priority. I suspect that if you are reading this blog, you understand the importance of forests and their impact on clean water, healthy air, abundant wildlife and the very existence of the human species. The challenge is elevating this reality to the point of priority.
- Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?
Growing up, I lived about an hour from Shenandoah National Park. My family used to frequently take day trips down Skyline Drive, which follows the spine of the mountains through the park. Most of our trips would include cooking hotdogs at a picnic area. On one particular trip when I was eight or nine years old, I was complaining to my parents that I was bored while they were setting up for our hotdog lunch. Tired of entertaining me, they suggested I “go catch a chipmunk.” While numerous in the park’s picnic areas, chipmunks seemed impossible to catch. At least to my parents. After a few minutes, I returned with a young chipmunk cupped in the sleeve of my sweatshirt! To this day, my parents claim that chipmunk must have been sick. However, when I let it go, it sure did speed away like a healthy chipmunk. I never tried for another one, not wanting to risk proving my parents right.
- What is your favorite tree and why?
I have two favorite trees. My favorite local tree is American sycamore. I recall as a child looking for sycamores (long before I knew what they were called) out the car window going down the highway — the distinctive patchy white-gray-green bark stood out at 65 mph! I often find stately sycamores shadowing stream banks and city streets — it is a hardy, quick growing and showy tree. Four years ago, I rescued and replanted a 10’-tall sycamore that would have been destroyed by nearby construction. Now, I enjoy its year-round beauty whenever I look out my back window (it’s nearly 20’ tall now). My second favorite tree is Bristlecone pine. You should look this one up — it has an amazing 5,000-year-old story.