Profiles in Conservation

Code-writing robotics expert’s secret passion: conservation

Inner child who played in the woods helps drive conservation initiative

Jim Bonesteel of Averill Park, NY, has been working on robot technology’s leading edge for more than 30 years, but his real passion is anything but artificial.

“I write software that is used to run robots,” he said. “I’ve been doing that since 1998. The client is Automated Dynamics located in Niskayuna, NY. I’ve been a software developer since 1984.”

“Robotics helps them to manufacture items,” he said. “For example, for the V-22 Osprey helicopter, the grips that hold the rotor blades to the hub of the rotors are built by one of these robots. There is another robot building composite wings for the Boeing 787.”

“These robots are very specific. They’re used to build parts made of high-strength, lightweight materials. These composite parts might be 80 to 100 layers of tape thick. My software suite lets engineers design a complete part and specify what angle to place the tape for each ply or layer. It’s a complete suite of software that lets them do this. My client provides different features to their customers who might want to add one feature or another. My software helps them to do those things,” he added.

Bonesteel works primarily with Visual C++ to write code. He also uses a variety of other software tools on occasion to develop applications for his customers.

He routinely writes code alone, and interestingly, hardly ever visits the robots at customer sites. “About 90 percent of my time, my work is done remotely. These robots are all over the world,” he said.

On a typical work day someone might find him in his office for long hours at a stretch, tapping away on his computer keypad writing seemingly endless lines of code. Fortunately, he has a short commute – a whopping 50 feet from his house, just across the driveway.

“My office is above my garage. I’ve been working out of there since 2004. Before that I had a desk in the house. My wife, Jill, also has an office above the garage. She’s a freelance writer and editor, working on a lot of textbooks.”

Their family lives in a relatively tranquil setting toward the end of a dead-end road in a rural forested area. Their home sits on 6½ acres of land. “We have one neighbor that we can see an.nd that’s it. The other neighbors are farther away.”

When not working on robotics, Bonesteel can often be found outdoors, working with others to conserve nearby natural places.

“I happen to be a code writer. That’s my career,” he said. “Though the thing I’m really passionate about is my conservation work. The robotics work helps to pay the bills.”

Bonesteel said he started out in conservation as a volunteer at the environmental center, about a 40-minute drive from home.

“I got involved in conservation because I was spending a fair amount of time at the conservation center in the early 1990s, and I was invited to become a board member of the Friends of Dyken Pond Environmental Conservation Center,” he said.

“As a kid I was always out playing in the woods and in the streams. I loved wildlife, hiking, and backpacking. I just added to those values early on. I never had time to act on those values until I joined the board that would help conserve the forest and natural places.”

“In my childhood, I grew up in a house that was in an area with a rural character,” he said. “There was a creek, which locally we pronounced ‘crick’. I spent a lot of time down in those woods, playing ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Manhunt’, and building forts. That was part of who I was, a kid who played in the woods,” he added.

Bonesteel has three older siblings, with the youngest being 11½ years older than him. “It was almost like an only-child situation,” he said.

“My parents and I would go camping in the Adirondacks often. We would go canoeing, fishing, hiking, and climbing some of the smaller mountains. I think it was 60/40 my parents vs. me for loving the outdoors. My older brother Ross also got me interested in the woods. My parents weren’t particularly conservation minded, but they liked the outdoors.”

He said he was on the board of directors in the early nineties, and there was a conservation project that they were contemplating. The president of the board at that time was uncomfortable leading the board to do that conservation project.

“I was one of the board members that really saw the value in conserving this land. I was kind of pushing it,” he added.

“He asked me if I wanted to become the president and take over as the chair of that board. I agreed to do that. It was a land acquisition that would add 80 acres to the environmental conservation center. It would involve fundraising. We wound up doing an entire series of conservation projects that were successful and well received over the years,” Bonesteel said.

“Around 2006, Lisa Hoyt, the director of the environmental center, and Fran Egbert, who was on the board of directors of the local land trust, convened a group of people that represented a number of organizations to work to conserve the forests of the Rensselaer Plateau.”

“I started attending those meetings,” he said. “After a year, Fran, who had been chairing the meetings, wanted someone else to lead the chairmanship. Lisa suggested that I would be a good person to lead this group. I agreed to do it and was the volunteer chair of that group until we incorporated as a not-for-profit in 2008, the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance. I was the volunteer board president until 2014 when I stepped down and was hired as the Executive Director, which is a part-time position.”

One of their early projects was to do a regional conservation plan, he said.

“Part of what we did with that was invite all of the municipal officials, citizens, members of the forest products industry, and recreational groups. We invited them to participate in the development of this regional conservation plan. That project formed the foundation of a lot of our work since, and it also built our relationships with all of these constituents since then.”

He said they completed detailed ecological and economic studies as part of the conservation plan.

“In 2011 one of our board members, Walter Kersch, and I went to a workshop at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, MA,” he added. “At that workshop there were these breakout sessions, and Walter attended one on Community Forests. On our 2-hour drive home at the end of the day, that was all he could talk about. He was so excited about community forests. Then he presented the idea to our board as the champion of it.”

The Community Forest Program helps conserve forests that are important for people and the places they call home. They provide many benefits: places to recreate and enjoy nature, habitat protection, improved water quality, and other environmental benefits. They can also provide economic benefits through timber resources and have historically provided sites for environmental and cultural education.

“The following year we received a grant and did a full-day workshop of our own. We invited people from land trusts, municipal officials, and anyone who might be interested in community forests. We invited experts in from the Northeast to teach us. Over 80 people attended. We wanted to share this info with other organizations, and we wanted to learn for ourselves how to do community forests. It was a big success,” he added.

A year later they held a public workshop and invited members of the local community to become members of the community forest committee. The committee started working on a community forest plan and searched for a parcel of land that could become a community forest.

“After looking at a dozen different possibilities, we found one that was 350 acres owned by a local mining company,” he said. “It was the perfect site to be used as a community forest. It had forests in a state that some forestry could be done. The forests were healthy and could be used as a demonstration forest with active forestry. The land had other really interesting features, three different kinds of wetlands. A small portion was an abandoned gravel mine that was being reclaimed by forests. We got a contract and wrote a grant application to the Community Forest Program.”

“We developed a fundraising plan and were pre-approved for a loan from The Conservation Fund. The grant was approved in the end of June 2014. We asked the seller to donate some money back, and they agreed to donate $100,000 back from the sale price. We closed on the acquisition of the property in 2014. We were able to raise the remaining funds and pay our loan off 2 years later. The Forest Service grant will pay up to half of the appraised value of the land. The total land value was $300,000.”

Bonesteel enjoyed his experience conserving land. “I would recommend the Community Forest Program to others. I’m trying to spread the word about it in New York.”

“The community forest is on the Rensselaer Plateau; it is a piece of that whole landscape. The Rensselaer Plateau is 118,000 acres. We did a second community forest project that we closed on in January of 2017. We just did the ribbon cutting last Saturday. It is 353 acres in size.”

The committee is still actively involved today, he added. “A volunteer trail crew has built about 6 miles of trails. The Sarasota Mountain Bike Association has built a network of trails geared toward mountain bikes. It’s being used for recreation extensively. We also have a forester who has done a forest management plan. The site is being used as a demonstration forest for sustainable forestry practices.”

“We are now entering into a contract for our first timber harvest this winter. It [the forest] also provides ecological values of an intact forest, a haven for wildlife, and storm water retention. There are a number of workshops and educational programs. One of the biggest uses [of this community forest] is for hiking.”

Bonesteel passed on his love for the outdoors to his kids.

“My children spend a ton of time in the forest behind our house,” he said. “My two boys, having the choice of hanging out on the computer or exploring in the woods, they would always pick the woods. I’m very happy about that.”

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