By Mike Beacom
Michigan’s Forestry Assistance Program is enhancing active management of non-industrial private forest lands throughout the northern half of the state with the help of conservation districts and private sector partners. The grant initiative is administered through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). Through the program, conservation districts can receive financial assistance to hire staff foresters, who in turn, provide private landowners with critical education resources and one-on-one technical assistance on local forest health issues.
But before the Forestry Assistance Program found success, it had to overcome its share of obstacles. For years, the state had relied unsuccessfully on similar models to increase staff capacity and private forestland management. But the funding was unreliable, and many professional foresters believed those models put private sector businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
During one period, Michigan had no forestry outreach program, despite an obvious need. At that time, Lori Phalen worked for a local conservation district office. “We continually had folks with woodlands calling our office and asking for assistance,” she said. “It was frustrating. They weren’t getting the help they were looking for.”
State agency leaders pulled stakeholders together, and through a collaborative process drafted language to protect private sector interests as well as allow for additional private forestland outreach.
A study by Michigan State University revealed that only around 20 percent of the state’s private forestland is managed. Improving upon that number is a primary goal for the program; and hiring program foresters is the starting point.
“Our program foresters are all about education. That’s their role,” said Phalen, now the executive director of the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts. “They walk the woods and let private landowners know what they have and what the value is and how they can enhance it through proper management.”
After the initial visit, the program foresters connect the landowner with a professional forester. The program tracks these referrals to the private sector in dollars and cents, whether it’s a management plan, a timber sale, an appraisal, or some other service. MDARD Forestry Assistance Program manager Ben Schram estimates FY2016 referrals equated to close to $10 million, although he admits some referral services will not be contracted in the same fiscal year.
“The professional foresters are beginning to embrace the program. Many of them fought this idea for years, but now we’re pushing so much business their way, in some areas they can’t keep up,” Phalen said.
Another highlight of the program is that foresters are tasked with assembling local forestry advisory committees. “It brings together forestry professionals and agency people from the service area to discuss goals for the program, targeted outreach, forest health priorities, (and) how to cooperate. It also allows for regular communication between the program foresters and private foresters, which is important,” Schram said.
Leaders are also optimistic about program funding. Michigan’s Qualified Forest Program (QFP) provides landowners with a tax incentive for managing non-homestead property. Landowners pay a small portion of that relief back in the form of a participation fee, which helps fund the Forestry Assistance Program foresters. Currently, the program also relies on state general funds, but Schram believes in time the participation fee funding will help the program achieve financial stability.
Phalen would love to see a forester housed in every Michigan conservation district office. Most of the 20 program foresters are located in the northern half of the state – where much of the non-homestead property eligible for QFP is located – but Michigan’s hardwoods in the southern half are also in need of management. For now, though, she’s enjoying the early success of the program. “It’s exciting to see the results and how positive it is viewed by our landowners and private sector providers!”