Professor Jill Belsky Retires

The W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation celebrates Dr. Jill Belsky as she retires from her position as professor of rural and environmental sociology at the University of Montana.

Jill Belsky in Bhutan

Jill’s three decades of teaching, research and public outreach have focused on the interaction between social and ecological systems and their implications for policy and land management in rural areas in the West and around the world. Much of her work focused on international and interdisciplinary teaching and research, usually through field-based experiential learning. She has been the recipient of awards for outstanding teaching from the International Rural Sociological Society as well as from UM.

Jill has worked with The Nature Conservancy on issues related to ownership and governance of forests. She also has a long history of research and faculty development with the Ugyen Wangchuk Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research in Bhutan. Jill was also editor-in-chief of the journal Society & Natural Resources from 2012 through 2014.

A sociologist by training, Jill earned a B.A. from Colgate University and a M.A. and PhD from Cornell University. She came to the University of Montana in winter 1991 – almost exactly 30 years ago to her retirement. She originally joined the faculty in the Department of Sociology, teaching her first course: Sociological Perspectives on Global Environmental Problems.

“There was no course with a similar focus taught on the UM campus at that time,” Jill said. “I doubt anyone at UM had ever met an environmental sociologist, which is what I was trained to be; it was a relatively new professional field at that time. I taught a variant of that first course annually up to and through spring 2020.”

Jill fondly remembers the support given by the Department of Sociology and the (then) School of Forestry toward interdisciplinary and field-based learning. For decades Jill co-researched and co-taught courses with now-retired FCFC faculty member Steve Siebert, emeritus professor of forest management (who also happens to be Jill’s husband). They co-taught Social Forestry (later renamed Community Forestry and Conservation) for 20 years. They also co-led six interdisciplinary field courses on conservation and development to Belize, one to Malaysia, and more recently one on climate change in Vietnam. They co-authored dozens of academic papers. Together they were pioneers not only at UM but beyond in researching and teaching about social-ecological systems, notably about what historic systems can teach us toward pursuing sustainable, equitable land uses and livelihoods. They received numerous grants and invitations to improve institutional capacity in these areas around the world, advising on curricula and program development in Belize, Bhutan, Chile, India and Indonesia.

In 2004, Jill joined the faculty in the School of Forestry and Conservation to help establish the new Department of Society and Conservation.

“Being a founding and long-standing member, as well as chair from 2015-2018, in the Department of Society and Conservation has truly been a labor of love and source of great personal pride and achievement,” Jill said.

In 2004, she also become the director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests, a position she held for the next decade. Established in 1994, under Jill’s leadership the Bolle Center supported interdisciplinary education, participatory research and community outreach to foster resilient and sustainable livelihoods, communities and forests in the U.S. Intermountain West and internationally.

“Over the decades, FCFC has been a wonderful base for me to teach and build a series of projects in the US and internationally that took a critical approach to conservation and development – that is, to further understanding of underlying social and especially political forces necessary to pursue ecological sustainability that integrates and supports social justice and well-being across different types and classes of people,” Jill said.  

During the second half of her career her research frequently followed an approach known as participatory research. Communities and people for whom the research was to benefit co-developed topics, methods and data which they cooperatively applied towards fostering conservation with social and environmental justice.

For example, Jill and her graduate students conducted participatory research to assist with developing and monitoring community conservation and development projects in Belize and Bhutan. Closer to home, they conducted participatory research with the Blackfoot Challenge to create, govern and adaptively manage the Blackfoot Community Conservation Area, and they assisted Swan Valley Connections over the years with many community outreach activities, as well as building and administering community forestry education and outreach programs. 

Jill says her proudest legacy are the dozens of graduate students she supervised whom have gone on to lead and inspire progressive conservation work in Montana, across the West and around the world.

Following her retirement, Jill plans to teach international, field-based courses as soon as it’s safe to do so in light of the pandemic. She is also working with others at UM and beyond on a new interdisciplinary research project, and she will continue to serve on professional editorial boards. Not least of all, she hopes to engage in daily physical activity, read a lot of novels and make considerable use of a brand-new camper-top on trips throughout the West.

Please join us in wishing Jill all the best. From all of us at the FCFC, congratulations on a standout career!