Farming Magazine - December, 2011


Stewards and Spokespeople

Spreading the message of forest management
By Patrick White

PAFS volunteers complete a 40- hour training that covers forest management topics ranging from tree identification to tax issues. Here, volunteer candidates learn how to measure trees using Biltmore sticks.
Photos courtesy of PAFS.
A professional opinion is good, but sometimes you want the trusted advice of a friend. It was that realization that led Jim Finley, professor of forest resources at Penn State University, to form the Pennsylvania Forest Stewards (PAFS) program nearly 20 years ago. Two decades later, the outreach effort is still going strong, using trained volunteers to spread the message of forest stewardship.

"The whole idea is peer education," explains Finley, who holds the Ibberson Chair in Forest Resource Management at Penn State. "Landowners who have an enhanced understanding are in a better position sometimes to talk with their peers about some of these issues than professionals are." Even casual conversations, he notes, can help motivate landowners to learn more about forest stewardship and forest management.

In addition to being powerful, discussions between neighbors, friends and fellow landowners occur much more frequently than conversations with forest management professionals. "One of the things we've learned over the years in doing landowner surveys is that, oftentimes, the discussion over the fence is more likely to happen than a discussion between a landowner and a professional," Finley points out. He says the program is based on Vermont Coverts, a similar outreach program aimed at educating woodland owners in that state about proper forest management practices.

In addition to spreading the message of forest stewardship, another goal is to actually improve forest management approaches. Finley says an important hallmark of the PAFS program is collaborative learning. "People who live on the land often have an understanding of that land that a professional may not. Private landowners working together, with some professional insights, might create better solutions for the kinds of issues they need to address."

PAFS volunteers are typically nominated for the program by extension educators or state service foresters, or by a current PAFS member. Most of the volunteers who come through the program are landowners, but Finley notes that there are also a wide variety of others with an interest in - and a passion for - forest stewardship. In 2011, for example, the group of 19 who completed the two-weekend (40-hour) training included landowners as well as a newspaper writer who writes an outdoors column; a municipal government employee; and two teachers involved in environmental education. Over the years, a number of people who work for or are involved with conservation groups have completed the training. "We really are open to all of these avenues, because it's a way to promote discussion," he states.

There is one segment of the population that cannot sign up for the volunteer program: forestry professionals. "If you're associated with the forest industry professionally, than we're not looking for you," Finley explains, "because that changes the dialogue." The real focus of the group is to have non-professionals learn and spread what they learn to other non-professionals, he emphasizes. In addition, those who contact PAFS are less likely to be engaged if they are interested in the training primarily for their own personal benefit. "We're looking for people who are willing to do something," says Finley.

Those volunteers who enter the program don't always have a broad base of knowledge on forest stewardship issues. "What they have is a passion, and I think that's more important to us than the knowledge," he states. "Oftentimes, we have to help them learn to identify trees or learn how to measure a tree. Sometimes they come in with the perception that they have a lot of knowledge, but by the end of their training they're amazed by how much they've learned and they're eager to learn more."

The training covers a wide swath of topics related to forest stewardship, ranging from invasive plants to habitat and wildlife to tax issues, to name just a few. It's not only large woodlot owners, either. "Sometimes people come to the program with an acre-and-a-half in the backyard, but they have a passion and they want to share what they learn with their neighbors," Finley adds.

The PAFS program includes training on how to best carry on discussions of forest stewardship. The emphasis is on listening, rather than telling others how to manage their woodlots, says Finley. "None of us like to be told anything," he observes. "Sometimes the discussion over the fence starts by me doing something on my side of the fence. Then, the neighbor looks over the fence and asks, 'What are you doing over there?' - and that starts a discussion. It's not in-your-face as much as it is demonstrating good stewardship and creating the opportunity to talk with your neighbor."

One of the goals of PAFS is to utilize volunteers in ways that work best for each individual. "When we recruit people, we ask them to fill out a survey. We ask them how comfortable they are speaking to others and what kinds of things they would be willing to do," says Finley. Some are most comfortable promoting forest stewardship in one-on-one conversations with neighbors and friends; others have started programs to bring school children out in the woods on field trips; others write articles or take photos to get the message out in the media. "We try to play to the strength of the individual, and ask them, 'What do you want to do, and what are you willing to do?'" he explains. "If you ask people to do something they want to do, they are more likely to do it."

For some volunteers, the involvement with PAFS is cyclical, depending on their phase in life and the amount of time they can contribute. However, Finley says that the passion for forest stewardship tends to remain strong and continually brings volunteers back to the group. For example, he notes that of the original class that "graduated" through the first PAFS training 20 years ago, five remain very actively involved. "They keep coming back - they come back for the in-service training that we offer twice a year; they come back for the annual meeting and picnic that we hold every year at a volunteer's woodlot," says Finley. There were 162 volunteers at the last annual meeting - a testament to the passion.

The summer in-service training classes are intended as refresher courses, as well as an opportunity for intensive training on topics not part of the main PAFS training curriculum. This past summer, classes focused building trails in the woods, and including training on the use of GPS units, as well as on topics such as soil erosion and sedimentation. Another topic that the group has focused on is estate planning, to help forest owners keep the land they own together in the next generation. "Part of the discussion is to get people to think about the future - how you can pass that land forward," says Finley. "One of the issues we're faced with here in Pennsylvania is the parcelization of the land. We're 49th in population growth and third in land consumption." Encouraging conversations about estate planning can help families create a roadmap for preserving the forestland that means so much to them.

Finley credits Allyson Brownlee Muth, the state coordinator for PAFS, with helping to broaden the perspective of the program. Instead of focusing on a list of "objectives," as is typical in the creation of a forest management plan, the discussion has shifted to ask landowners how they experience their land, how they value it, and what they like to do on their land. "That changes the dialogue some," says Finley. "A person tells a little bit of a story when you ask those kinds of questions, and you begin to understand how to the land is important to them, and what they're looking to do."

To help promote opportunities for these types of discussions, over the years, PAFS volunteers have been instrumental in helping to start county and multi-county forest landowners associations, says Finley. There are now 28 such groups in Pennsylvania, covering 48 of the state's 67 counties. "So, now there are monthly and bi-monthly meetings where landowners come together to talk and to learn from each other and to involve others in the conversation," he explains.

The PAFS program is run through Penn State, and is supported by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service that comes through the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. "I think that we've been able to build a pretty strong relationship with the Bureau of Forestry, and they recognize the value of landowners talking about their land, and helping to identify how they want to care for it," says Finley. "Our service foresters in Pennsylvania are intimately involved in the conversation and the training, and they continue the relationship they develop with the volunteers out there in the working landscape. It's important that the volunteers aren't training in some basic forestry and then abandoned - they have a relationship with a forester and together they create ways of reaching out to others."

Finley marvels at the growth of PAFS over the last 20 years, as well as the potential the program has well into the future to spread the message of forest stewardship from person to person. "It's really evolved and taken on a life of its own," he says. "It's really a pretty powerful experience for a lot of landowners."

More information about PAFS is available online at