Forestry Notes Q&A: NIFA National Program Leader Eric Norland

Forestry Notes Q&A
Eric Norland, National Program Leader
National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Division of Environmental Systems

Dr. Norland provides national leadership for forest resource management, forest sustainability and agroforestry research and extension programs; the Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA) Program, which provides funding to 73 land-grant institutions for Extension forest and rangeland resources programs; and the national network of Extension Forestry Program Leaders, Specialists, and Educators. Prior to joining NIFA, he served as the County Extension Agent, District Extension Specialist and State Extension Program Leader for Natural Resources for Ohio State University Extension Service.

Norland took the time to sit down with NACD Forestry Notes to talk more about NIFA and the role of Extension foresters.

How would you describe the role Extension foresters play as a leader for the states/regions they represent?
The roles of Extension foresters have evolved since the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created the Cooperative Extension System. Extension foresters, first and foremost, provide science-based education and information to forestland owners and managers to support their decision-making. Extension foresters don’t tell landowners what to do or how to do it. Rather, they present what is known from research findings and the likely outcomes of various approaches to forest management. Armed with that information, landowners, foresters and other natural resource professionals, such as conservation districts, can make more informed decisions about resource and land management. Beyond this, Extension foresters are conveners, facilitators, partners, initiators, organizers and leaders in their counties, towns, parishes, states and regions.

How does your office/NIFA support those efforts? What obstacles do you deal with in doing so?
The NIFA supports research, education and extension in the agriculture, food and natural resource sciences. The support is primarily provided as funding to land-grant universities and other research universities and institutions, including some federal science agencies. For forestry, NIFA provides capacity funds to support forestry research, through the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research Program, and forestry extension programs through the RREA. NIFA also provides support through program development, evaluation, coordination and communications.

As for obstacles, I think that one of the obstacles that we all face in Extension forestry is dispelling the notion that Extension is old-fashioned, not relevant, and lacks innovation. In the 18 years I’ve been at NIFA (formerly the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service), I’ve observed Extension foresters adopt new technology to blend with tried and true technologies to deliver educational programs and tackle relevant issues that others were not able or willing to discuss. I’ve watched the Extension forestry workforce come to more closely mirror the diversity we find in the forest landowner population. Another obstacle, I believe, is an emphasis on forestry research, which is clearly important, without a commitment to deliver new knowledge to those who can use it. Research, by itself, is interesting; research that produces knowledge and technology that is relevant, useful, understandable and accessible to users is transformational.

We know Extension foresters and conservation districts are partners in a number of states. How do you feel the two complement one another?
First, both have valuable aspects of their work that, together, can expand conservation on the ground. Extension foresters are looped in quite well on on-going research and the new knowledge that is being discovered. Conservation district staff are on the ground with landowners almost every day and see and hear about the interests and questions that they have. These questions, which may or may not have research-based answers yet, are important to convey to Extension in order to find the answers; and Extension foresters are well-positioned to convey new knowledge to conservation district staff, who can then convey it to landowners.

Second is what I call the “hand-off.” Landowners can only benefit if district staff and Extension foresters refer their clients to one another to get the best information to address their needs. Neither organization is serving their clients the best they can if each just worries about keeping their clientele to themselves. I recall from my early days in Extension in Ohio where Extension, NRCS and the SWCD were all involved in a major watershed project. The farmers in the watershed knew the staff from the watershed project. They didn’t care who they worked for, and the staff didn’t care if they weren’t known for their organizational affiliation other than being from the watershed project. That was a big step forward and what our clientele deserves.

Where do you see opportunities for Extension and conservation districts to expand their partnership?
Before you can expand a partnership, you have to have a partnership. I think that comes with mutual understanding and appreciation of what each brings to the table to advance conservation and sound forest management–whatever that means to the landowner. Hopefully that leads to mutual, professional trust in each other’s competencies. After that, the sky’s the limit.

I think that both district and Extension staff can learn from one another. If one is working with a landowner on a particular issue, invite the other to come along. More can be accomplished out of the office and in the field than staring at each other across a desk or conference table. When I was a County Extension Agent, I always attended monthly SWCD Supervisor Meetings and the annual planning meeting, and district staff always attended the annual Extension meeting. When I was the Extension Natural Resource Program Leader and county agents called to complain about their district not involving them in programs, I always asked two questions: 1) Do you attend the supervisor meetings, and 2) Do you participate in the district’s annual planning meeting? If the answer was ‘no’ to one or both questions, my comment was, “They don’t know you. Call me back after you’ve spent some time engaging with your conservation district.”

How can conservation districts best engage with a local Extension forester where relationships are not already in place?
Extension foresters and district staff have equal opportunities and responsibilities to work together. I would not lay all of the responsibility on a district or Extension foresters to foster a relationship. It’s a two-way street. Extension places a lot of importance in establishing relationships with other organizations, landowners, locally-elected officials and others. If you don’t know each other and appreciate each other’s mission, strengths, challenges and constraints, then it is much harder to have a productive relationship and partnership.

On my first day as a county extension agent, my county extension chair told me that I needed to get over to the county SWCD office and meet the staff. I did that during the first week. After I got to know them and they me, we proceeded to jointly plan lots of programs, workshops and field days that benefited our shared clientele. Landowners appreciated the partnership we had and the programs we offered because it benefited them in direct and often in monetary terms.

What does the future look like for Extension forestry?
I think the future is full of opportunity and promise. Extension foresters continue to innovate and adapt their programs and how they are delivered in order to serve their clientele. They continue to evolve their programs and to teach and speak about forest resource issues that some find controversial but are based in science. One of the best examples is the issue of the changing climate and how it is impacting forests. When Extension foresters began to make concerted efforts to explain the science, they often ran into buzz saws “operated” by both their administration, state government and the clientele they served. They studied the best approaches to discussing the issue, used their new knowledge to address the topic, and did so in an open, impartial manner and in a respectful manner knowing that there was a wide variety of opinions. I believe that they will continue to go where the science takes them and that they will convey it in a manner that is important to their clientele.

And I believe the future is bright based on the interest of graduating college students who want to make a difference in the world. A recent e-learning “Extension Forestry Onboarding” program had nearly 50 participants who were either seeking Extension forestry jobs or were very early career and seeking to understand what it takes to be successful and relevant. Lastly, as retirements have resulted in vacancies at the state and county levels, most universities have moved to refill those positions—a sign forests and forest landowners are important and need to be tended to.

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