In Memoriam: Charles H.W. Foster

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Charles H.W. (Henry) Foster, a former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and for decades one of the nation’s leading environmental policy experts, died of cancer on Oct. 4 at the age of 85 in Needham, Massachusetts.

Hank Foster was F&ES’ eighth dean and served from 1976 to 1981. During his tenure, he laid the groundwork for the revival of the tropical resources program that presaged the school’s expanding international presence. Today, the Tropical Resources Institute supports student research and outreach in 60 countries through fellowships and other support.

“He was quite an environmental thinker,” said Graeme Berlyn, the E.H. Harriman Professor of Forest Management, “and a calm influence during a period of student unrest at Yale.” 

Foster devoted more than 15 years of his career to government, serving seven Massachusetts’ governors in such posts as water resources specialist, commissioner of natural resources and, in 1971, as the commonwealth’s first cabinet-level secretary of environmental affairs. 

In addition to his government service, he was president of The Nature Conservancy from 1966 to 1967, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a professor or lecturer at Brown, Clark, Stanford and Tufts universities. In 1986 he began a long association as a research fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He published widely on natural resources and conservation. His four books in a series, “Experiments in Bioregionalism: The New England River Basins Story, published in 1984, reflected his special interest in the management of natural resources and environment across jurisdictional boundaries. He also edited the 1998 book “Stepping Back to Look Forward: A History of the Massachusetts Forest,” which called for citizens to re-establish their historical connection to forests.

Foster graduated from Harvard College, and held professional degrees in forestry and wildlife management from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in geography and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He did his postdoctoral studies as a Charles Bullard Research Fellow at the 3,500-acre Harvard Forest. From 1945 to 1947, he served in the U.S. Army.

In 2011 the New England Governors’ Conference passed a resolution honoring Foster for his academic and public service, and his contributions to professional and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, New England Aquarium, Conservation Foundation, Appalachian National Scenic Trail Advisory Board, and the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission.

He also was cited for being a co-editor of “Twentieth Century New England Land Conservation: A Heritage of Civic Engagement,” published in 2009, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of New England governors (in 1908) and led to the formation of the governors’ Commission on Land Conservation.

He was a member of many national and international boards and commissions, and in 2007 received the Allen Morgan Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a Golden Membership Award from the Society of American Foresters (2006) and a Conservation Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior (2002).

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Foster was a champion squash player. He won the intercollegiate individual crown in 1951 and, as the senior captain and top-ranked player, he led the Crimson to the college team title and the United States Squash Racquets five-man team championship — the first time in 19 years that a college varsity team won an event that for decades had been dominated by cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. 

Foster was a master at the flicking-twisting game, “holding” the ball until the last possible instant before delivering a shot-making salvo — his favorites being the reverse-corner and three-wall nick, or a disconcerting lob. He went on to win titles in 1952 and 1953.

Foster is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Barbara Duchaine of Needham; a son, Jonathan, a wealth management professional in Los Angeles; two daughters, Susan ’83, a wildlife studies teacher and former Urban Resources Initiative board member, of Woodbridge, Connecticut, and Frances, a professor at the Washington University Law School in St. Louis; and six grandchildren.

Star Childs ’80, a trustee of Yale Myers Forest and a member of the school’s Leadership Council, said Foster was a “champion” of the early conservation legal battles as environmentalism took root in the 1960s and 1970s.  

“His most recent work editing a wonderful book on the land conservation history of New England states was an important capstone in his long and impressive career,” he said.


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