Tom Martin has many good memories of his childhood days at his family’s Northern Wisconsin Tree Farm. When he became president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation in 2009, the experiences he had in those woods provided valuable insights about what it meant to be a family forest owner
"AFF resonated with my own values and experiences, having spent all those years in the woods and having the woodlands become a center for our family. It was easy to understand the opportunities and challenges that other forest landowners face. So, it felt like coming home to kindred spirits,” said Martin.
After leading the organization through 12 years of extensive growth, Martin will be retiring at the end of 2021. But his influence on the organization will continue for many years through the programs that he initiated, the relationships that he built, and the staff members that he mentored and encouraged.
“Tom has had the vision and the creative skills to move a fairly staid organization into the 21st century,” said Jameson French, president and CEO of Northland Forest Products and AFF Board member.
At the beginning of Martin’s tenure, “Most family forest owners really did not know about the American Forest Foundation; they connected more with the American Tree Farm System, which is an arm of AFF," said Salem Saloom, a family forest owner and a member of AFF’s Board. “But AFF has come to the spotlight over the last several years as a leading national conservation organization with many partners. Tree Farm is one important part of that. That’s where Tom’s leadership has taken us.”
“When I joined AFF, the world was changing,” said Martin. “Technology was taking a bigger role. Some issues were emerging more fully, like the need to deal with climate change and carbon markets. These opportunities meant that AFF could adapt and provide even more support to family landowners, so they could be great stewards on their land.”
Over the last decade, “We’ve seen what AFF and the landowners who work with us can do to make a meaningful conservation difference,” he added. “The land is important in its own right, but it’s also important as part of a bigger effort to move the needle on those big issues like climate change, wildfire and wildlife.” Under Martin’s leadership, AFF has helped family forest owners find ways to make that difference on their own land and on a broader scale.
The Board members and senior staff members interviewed for this article credit Martin’s success to his ability to innovate and to think outside the box. They describe him as personable, passionate about what he does and an excellent listener. He’s formed close relationships with his staff, his board members, and with people at other conservation organizations and government agencies.
“Everyone respects him,” added Saloom. “He may be demanding, but good leaders are demanding. He expects his staff to do the work and follow through, but he’s there every step of the way influencing them and spurring them along.”
Martin, however, is quick to share the credit for what AFF has achieved. “I didn’t do any of this alone. We have an incredible group of staff, and we have this passionate group of volunteers who give up their time, their sweat, and their money quite freely,” he said.
Programs to Benefit All
While AFF has undergone many changes during his tenure, Martin considers the diversification of AFF’s initiatives for landowners one of his greatest accomplishments.
“We started with one cornerstone program (ATFS), and that’s still going great, but now we have many programs that allow us to be relevant to more landowners and that enable those landowners to be relevant on the more important issues in our society,” he said.
In developing new initiatives, Martin has addressed the needs not only of the current, traditional family forest owner but also of those who will be owning the land in the future.
“We’re seeing the land passed to the next generation within families, and those individuals sometimes have a different set of values,” said James Hubbard, deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service. “Martin has understood that it’s essential to understand and accommodate those different values, so this next generation can also be good stewards of the land.”
Martin has emphasized diversity, equity and inclusion during his tenure, paying attention to the unique needs of women and minority tree farm owners. “The demographics of land ownership has changed over the last century. African American landowners in particular, have seen the land that they and their families once held disappear from their ownership,” he said. “Many of these folks are very passionate about conservation. We want to give them the help they need to be able to do great work on their land from a conservation perspective.” AFF is providing assistance to these landowners through its partnership with the Sustainable Forestry African American Land Retention Program.
“Martin understands the specific needs of the minority small-family forest owner,” added Kedren Dillard, fourth-generation family forest owner and AFF board member. “He is laser-focused on ensuring all landowners are considered and included in AFF’s mission and initiatives.”
Many of AFF’s new programs have been the result of Martin’s outreach to local, state and federal forestry agencies and to other conservation organizations.
“Tom helped us move from an organization that supported and helped family landowners
but didn’t really have the profile of a conservation organization, to where we are today,” said Rita Hite, AFF executive vice president and Martin’s successor as president and CEO. “Now AFF has increased our conservation impact, is positioned with mainstream conservation organizations and because of this, we’re bringing more resources and support to family landowners.”
AFF’s work with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), for example, has enabled the government agency to better understand the concerns of family forest owners whose land is interspersed with national forests. “Helping address issues across those boundaries, has made us
a really good partner for many agencies,” Martin said.
“There are many things that the Forest Service brings to the equation; we have a network across all 50 states and territories,” said Victoria Christensen, who recently retired as chief of the USFS. “But there’s a lot of things a large government organization cannot do. We can’t invest dollars as quickly, and leverage and take risks on some ideas like the American Forest Foundation can. AFF has been like the little engine that could, and Tom was the catalyst to make sure we weren’t – in Wayne Gretzky terms – skating toward where the puck was, but to where the puck is going to go. He was very willing to take some calculated risk investments.”
Martin has become a leader in the larger conservation and sustainability space. “Tom is aware of where we’ve been, he looks to where we’re going, and where we want to be. That can sound simple. But it’s so critical in terms of sustainability conversations and leadership conversations. Tom looks forward boldly, and that’s exactly what AFF has needed, and what the sector has needed. He’s changed the willingness within the sector to think and to act in visionary ways,” said Kathryn Fernholz, president/CEO of Dovetail Partners and AFF board chair.
AFF has built its credibility with members and other organizations due in part to the emphasis
Martin has placed on measuring and verifying the results of AFF’s initiatives.
One example is the Family Forest Carbon Program. For this pilot, AFF has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to provide payments for small forest owners who implement climate-smart forestry practices to increase the carbon sequestered and stored on their land. AFF has developed formulas that show how much carbon is being stored through these forestry practices. With proof of that success, AFF hopes to eventually expand this program throughout the United States.
“The potential of aggregating small landowners for voluntary carbon credits will be hugely significant,” said French. “If we can put that system to work for small landowners, and have the income from the carbon credits go to help them do timber stand improvement, to help them improve their forest management plans, and to engage them more in conservation forestry, that’s a huge legacy.”
Martin has also overseen AFF’s development of 30 pilot programs that measure the impact of landscape-scale initiatives; these include Longleaf pine restoration in the southeast and fire mitigation efforts in the west. Again, the hope is that these small-scale projects will be measured, proved successful, and eventually adopted on a wider scale.
“Tom developed and implemented ways to reach the individual landowners and then to build programs around how to take all of this to scale and still respect the private landowners’ interests,” said Hubbard.
Prepared for the Future
When Martin came to AFF there were fewer than 20 staff members. Today there are more than 80.
“I was really blessed to have this incredible group of staff that came aboard over the years and took more and more of the leadership of the organization and did more of the hands-on work. My job became more about building and tending to the big partnerships that we had. Theirs became crafting the programs and making things happen on the ground. They’ve done an incredible job of that,” Martin said.
“From the beginning, Tom created an environment where we could push each other, ask
the hard questions and think at a much different scale than we had been thinking on and operating on previously,” said Hite.
One of Martin’s many contributions to AFF has been preparing the organization for his departure as any good leader should. “From the time we started working together, he pushed me to see that I was good at the policy and the lobbying work, but that I could do even more. He helped me grow, helped challenge me, and helped me become the next CEO,” said Hite.
Martin is confident he is leaving AFF in good hands. “Rita has this infectious ability to get people to feel positive and excited about working together,” said Martin. “I think she will be an extraordinary leader in helping AFF develop bigger and stronger partnerships. She’s also been a big part of the strategies that have gotten AFF to this point, so I have every confidence she will continue to make great strategic choices that help landowners address the big societal issues.”
Once he steps down as president and CEO, Martin plans to tend to his own family forest in Wisconsin. “I haven’t spent much time there in the last few years, and I’ve already got my fish stocking plan,” he said. He hopes to do more backpacking with his son and spend more time with his daughter and her foster kids. “My wife has gotten more time with them than I have,” he said.
But Martin doesn’t plan to retire from advocacy work. “I’m sure there will be some issues or initiatives that I’m passionate about, and I’ll do something to continue my life’s work around conservation,” he added.
He believes AFF’s family forest owners will be doing the same.
“I think AFF can help make sure that everybody sees the opportunities in owning woodlands and managing them not only for their own ends but also for societal good. The big challenges, like climate, that are out there for family forest owners are the same that broader society faces. That is something that is both a threat to their land and something for which their land is a potential solution,” he said. “These issues are one that family landowners can really make a big difference on, if they can be supported in the right way.”
Through his work with AFF, Martin has helped ensure that they will have that support for many years to come.
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