Jim Burchfield used to whistle as he walked through the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.
It didn't matter where he was coming from or which meeting he'd just attended, the former dean moved through the building in a cloud of good cheer, said Leana Schelvan, employed at UM since 2007.
"I think that really speaks to his personality," said Schelvan, who worked with Burchfield for three years. "He was in general very optimistic and hopeful and tried to have a very positive outlook."
The smiling forester retired on July 31 as dean of the college after 19 years at UM, and he's spent his first few months of leisure back in the open lands and forests close to his heart.
He misses the students, especially the raucous and energetic bunch in forestry, but he's staying involved in organizations that protect the public lands he cherishes – the Southwestern Crown Collaborative and the Lolo Forest Restoration Committee.
"It's a true gift from the past that we owe future generations to sustain," he said last week. "So I want to be a part of that. Forestry is my avocation. I'll always be involved in it one way or another."
Burchfield officially took the helm at the College of Forestry and Conservation in 2011 after serving as interim dean.
He worked as a professor at the college in 2003 when it added the term "conservation" to its name. It's a word he appreciates when it comes to the land; one with a positive connotation.
"It means both protection and management simultaneously. It means sustainability," Burchfield said. "That's always been the focus of our faculty and our students. Trees live a long time, and the land is important to us now, and it will be in the future."
A few years ago, he referred to himself as "tree-hugger in chief" when UM was struggling with its "liberal" image. The dean was joking, but he loves the towering beings such as the big larch on Boy Scout Road in the Seeley Lake area.
Early on in his career, Burchfield had an epiphany about trees.
"I realized that trees knew what to do, and it was managing people we needed to concentrate on," Burchfield said.
As a result, his career has focused on finding harmony at the place where people and nature meet. Forests, for instance, are more than trees; they're wildlife, ecological processes and recreation.
During his tenure, the college put an emphasis on fire, recently hiring two "outstanding" faculty members, a fire ecologist and fire scientist.
Fire is a significant disturbance, Burchfield said, and it was important for the program to expand its teaching of related technologies, suppression, incident command, remote sensing and firefighting safety.
"With climate change, it's only going to be more dramatic," he said.
Wayne Freimund, current dean of the college, said Burchfield brought an international perspective to forestry education at UM. He encouraged faculty to take students overseas and to consider global issues as they developed curricula.
"He worked closely with me to bring lots of international visitors to Missoula and to help build relationships, particularly with the U.S. Forest Service, and working on technical support and capacity building for international foresters and conservationists," Freimund said.
For years, the two ran an international seminar on protected-area management, which would often take place in July. The seminar would coincide with Burchfield's birthday, and he would host a barbecue at his home for the group.
Freimund remembers how the participants would put Burchfield in the middle of a circle, and go around the circle to sing happy birthday to him, each in a different language: Spanish, then French, Portuguese, then Mandarin.
In the end, everyone would sing their own song to him simultaneously.
"Jim would sit there being wished happy birthday by the entire world, and it was a really touching moment," Freimund said.
Forestry students are a lively crowd on campus, putting on the infamous Foresters' Ball, and buzzing their chainsaws, minus chains, in the homecoming parade. Burchfield considers interactions with them the best part of his job, and he said it was a thrill to be with a group so engaged.
He believes their energy on campus stems from the solidarity developed in harsh conditions in the field. The students gain confidence, and their enthusiasm spills over to their activities at the university. It gives them courage to stretch and try new things.
Sometimes, it means they make missteps and need to learn boundaries, but he said part of an administrator's job is to teach them. So he backs them, and he is excited about their relentless drive to improve the world around them.
"We're in a world, and we want to make it better. The idealism, the energy, the sense that we can make a difference. We focus on what's possible," he said. "What can you do to improve the quality of the environment? What can you do to allow natural processes to carry forward? What can you do to sustain native plants and animals?"
He said forestry students and faculty are bringing those answers forward.
When Burchfield retired, he passed the torch without looking back, with full confidence Freimund would preserve the forestry program's strong academic and scientific traditions at UM.
"We've hired incredibly talented people who not only are tremendous teachers, but they're outstanding scientists," he said. "They publish in the most respected journals."
The faculty members are passing on knowledge to the next generation of scientists, and in doing so, they are building capacity to look at tough problems in forestry and identifying causes and solutions, he said.
September was Burchfield's second month into retirement, and he spent it car camping with his wife. They stayed exclusively in public lands campgrounds, visiting Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Sheyenne National Grassland in North Dakota, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the Lake Superior shore.
Not a year goes by that he isn't in Glacier National Park at least a couple times.
"The quality of our public lands and the ability to experience them just brings me immeasurable joy," he said.
He never misses a chance to be outdoors, or to push others to spend time in nature for their physical health and attitude.
"Often, time for reflection is the best thing you can do to make better decisions," Burchfield said. "I always encouraged everyone around me to actually go into nature – that's our greatest teacher – and allow it to speak to you."