Forestry Notes Q&A: Paul DeLong

Paul DeLong is senior vice president for the American Tree Farm System & Conservation at the American Forest Foundation (AFF). He supports a talented team of conservationists working with partners to administer the nearly 20 million-acre Tree Farm program, and implement projects on family-owned forest lands designed to protect drinking water supplies, at-risk wildlife, and sustainably-produced wood across the country.

Prior to joining AFF in 2016, DeLong was Wisconsin’s chief state forester and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry for 13 years. He also served as president of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) from 2015-16. Previous to his work in Wisconsin, DeLong worked as a mediator for the RESOLVE Center for Environmental Dispute Resolution and subsequently as a senior program officer for World Wildlife Fund, both located in Washington, D.C. Recently, he spent time with NACD Forestry Notes to discuss his work and experience with forest conservation. To listen to a recording of this interview, visit NACD Forestry Notes’ podcast.

Talk about your role as senior vice president at AFF and also conservation, what that entails, and what that transition’s been like going to AFF.

I’ve been at AFF now for about four and a half years. Previous to that, I was Wisconsin’s chief State Forester for 13-plus years and had been with DNR in Wisconsin for 24 years. Part of what attracted me to AFF was I had partnered with AFF over many years, first through the American Tree Farm System, as an important landowner engagement and recognition and education program active across the country. And, in fact, when I was in college and interning with the Mosinee paper company, I did Tree Farm re-inspections. One of the things I loved about it was meeting landowners and seeing the passion they had for their land and their desire to be good stewards. It always stuck with me through my career with DNR. Looking at a place like Wisconsin, where not only is the majority of forestland owned by individual families, the majority of timber that is harvested comes from those lands that fuels a vital part of Wisconsin’s economy. And yet when most people think about forests and the benefits they provide, whether it’s sustainably-produced wood, clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, etc., folks aren’t thinking about those individuals and families who own the bulk of forestland.

And then having worked with AFF when they initiated the conservation program, as it is today, the first project that Jerry Greenberg initiated was in the Driftless Area of Southwestern Wisconsin, and a way of looking at how to more effectively engage landowners at a scale that can achieve targeted conservation impact. I was approached by Jerry to be part of that through Wisconsin DNR, and I was excited by the way in which AFF was really focused on overcoming some of the real inherent challenges that exist in engaging family forest owners in work like this. That willingness to roll up the sleeves and problem-solve and realizing that some ideas were going to sound good, but you bump into ‘whoops, that didn’t work,’ and then you learn from that and you move on to do something else. Sometimes in government, you’re much more constrained about the ability to take risks in the face of uncertainty and whatnot. So having partners like the AFF was just very exciting to work in a very collaborative atmosphere to take on challenges like that.

Having the opportunity to come to AFF has been great. So then my role, and happy to dive into the different components of it, because it includes really the many ways in which AFF is sort of connected to and touching what happens on the ground with family forest lands. And such an important and vital part of what AFF does, our policy work, for example, is really critically important and often not maybe recognized outside of particularly the D.C. area, about the importance of how federal policy influences the ability of landowners to be able to achieve these conservation outcomes. As we dive into more of what I’m working on, I just want to recognize the really important work that’s done through our policy and communications work and of course, many other enabling functions that help achieve conservation on the ground.

You mentioned policy. I think many of us recognize Rita Hite and the Forests in the Farm Bill coalition, which has been the last few (Farm Bill) cycles, very strong. AFF plays a leadership role and many people in policy look to (Rita) and to AFF as a core partner.

You have a big staff at AFF. What’s that like, because you are based in Wisconsin, folks are in different places, but obviously you’re playing off of one another. What has that networking relationship been like since you’ve been there these last four years?

Happy to talk about that and thank you for mentioning Rita. Rita’s phenomenal and I appreciate your recognition of her leadership role that she’s played in the policy arena – the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition, the Forest Climate Working Group and lots of stuff over many years actually. That was another way in which I partnered with AFF by the way. As the National Association of State Foresters’ legislative chair for many years, I interacted a lot with Rita in several roles, including when she came to AFF. We’re so fortunate in the forestry community to have her leadership. And she’s got a great team now at AFF working on policy.

So to your point, I’m based in Madison, Wis., and AFF is a D.C.-based organization,  and we have now staff across five time zones. You might pause a little and say, ‘wow, five times zones?’ Yup, all the way from Atlantic time to Pacific time. So Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. It makes it challenging sometimes when we’re engaging here, when you recognize the breadth of where our staff are located. But I think it’s been really powerful and valuable that it wasn’t all that long ago where it was almost entirely a D.C.-based organization. Now, the majority of staff are no longer in DC. And, so, whether it’s our program leaders like Tom Fry, located in Colorado who leads our Western fire work; Chris Irwin, located in Alabama leading our southern conservation portfolio and the great work they’re doing on biodiversity, and the list goes on. Even American Tree Farm System now having folks who have regional responsibilities located out within those regions and having in all cases now experience implementing Tree Farm, from a partner perspective, now working with AFF to serve those same partners and be those collaborators. It’s challenging in a remote work environment. I think now that’s something all the listeners will be like, ‘okay, we’ve all gone remote effectively, right?’ We were fortunate in the standpoint of the transition last March, we had already had a lot of systems in place because of having remote staff that we were able, even for our D.C. colleagues who then were working remotely and still are, by the way, the ability to have the systems in place to be able to facilitate the kind of ongoing and vital conversations and connections that occur in the work that we’re doing.

I would also say that as we work with the range of organizations and partnerships we have, our mission is to deliver meaningful conservation impacts of the empowerment of family forest landowners. That’s what we’re all about. We do not do that as an organization alone. It is predicated on strong vital partnerships. Connection is so important and vital. And the challenge we all are facing is how do we maintain. Maintaining connections is one thing when you can’t be together. It’s also when you’re developing new relationships, it’s even harder when you don’t have that ability to be face-to-face, even just some of the time. And I think we’re seeing that and like all organizations, and it’s true with conservation districts, too, the challenges of some of the work that we’re trying to get done and having to do that in this sort of remote space. What we go through is in a sense may be no different than what a lot of others are facing.

Back to Tree Farm. That’s a program that’s been around for many years and it represents a lot of landowners. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about what drives that program for the landowner — what they take from it that helps them become better stewards of their forestlands?

Tree Farm’s turning 80 this year and it’s had a remarkable history in terms of the largest network of family-owned forest landowners in the country. It’s something that, when you ask people who aren’t maybe even familiar with AFF institutionally, but you flash that sign, folks (say), ‘oh, I’ve seen that. I know that,’ so it’s really recognized. And you hit a key point, which is the power of Tree Farm has been for its eight decades the fact that it is recognizing stewardship of landowners. Through that recognition, it actually then brings more landowners into the fold. For example, the signs are very powerful. It may be a neighbor talking to a neighbor saying, ‘tell me about that.’ And by helping expand the reach in which landowners … can achieve their objectives, where they can get assistance. To the extent that the Tree Farm program is a great example of offering those opportunities to bring insight to landowners about their forests, about where opportunities exist to get technical assistance, financial assistance for things that they’re trying to accomplish that not only benefit them as landowners, but benefit all of us. Tree Farm has been great as an education and recognition program.

Its history as a third-party certification program is not that old. It didn’t start that way, of course, and certification really came into the fore in the 1990s. And then it was about a decade after that, that Tree Farm itself became certified. Why? Well, it was felt really important that one of the opportunities for smaller landowners to be engaged in the marketplace regarding certified wood, which was really taking off at the time. And the small landowners are always going to be hard. Unlike large private or even public lands where you’ve got a large amount of acreage owned by a single entity, we’re talking lots of owners, owning variable pieces of land. And it’s not there every day. In most cases, it’s not what they think about each and every day, each and every hour. And, so, it’s harder, and that’s our space we operate in. It’s one of the things I love about AFF as well – we’re not taking on the easy stuff. We’re actually tackling some really hard things. Tree Farm is a great example of the ability to help provide valuable service working with a bunch of partners throughout the states to implement this program that actually ultimately serves landowners, and by serving landowners we actually serve the broader public.

One thing I’m always curious about, Wisconsin has managed forest law (MFL) that provides dual certification, so through Tree Farm or other programs, Wisconsin DNR is able to certify those lands if you’re enrolled in MFL and it’s an incentive program for forest landowners. I’ve always asked, can that work other places? And the answer has always been ‘no, it’s unique to Wisconsin.’ Can you speak to that from your time being there and what that program was like, and is that applicable in other areas?

The managed forest law, I think, is a vitally important program in Wisconsin in the fact that it creates a real incentive for landowners to make that longer-term commitment, to do sustainable management, and in so doing, we see the impact it’s had on the state, the state’s economy, the quality of the state’s forest land, and in the communities in which these lands are held. It’s been really vital. Managed forest law is one of the most in-depth tax programs, if not the most in-depth tax program, in the country for family forestlands. And as a result, it comes with a significant amount of administration in order to ensure that it is achieving the goals that have been identified for it. That’s sometimes a barrier in other states in looking at a program like that. The ability to ensure that a program like this is achieving its objectives takes resources. The tension that has existed around that, I think, is one of the things you hear talked about in other states. I had a lot of state foresters in other parts of the country really envious of a law like the managed forest law that could really move the needle, and yet it’s really hard to get an investment of resources to assure you could actually have a program deliver that. So it’s not about the ability to deliver the benefits; it’s ultimately the willingness to make that investment to then deliver the outcomes. And, in particular, the environment we’ve been in with much more emphasis on smaller government and other policies that make it hard to get something like that over the finish line in a place where it doesn’t exist.

One of the things with Tree Farm recently, you’ve gone through a review of standards. I know we’ve talked about different parts of the country, different forest owners, different sizes of acreage… What has that process been like? Where are you at with that review? And what can you tell us about that experience?

As a certification program, we’re required every five years to revisit our standards and update them, and we actually just completed that work. The standards change was adopted by our board in November. We took a year in which we put together a group called the Independent Standards Review Panel, which was representatives – a dozen folks from different parts of the country. Shout out to Scott Phillips, who’s State Forester in South Carolina. He chaired this group and has been a long-time Tree Farm proponent and active in his state committee. He’s just been just a great partner. But then we had representatives of everything from landowners to state entities. We had secondary educational institutions like Michigan State University, we had Forest Service on it, we had industry, both primary and secondary industry, consulting foresters, other programs of those who provide service to landowners… just a range of different entities to help us assess against the certifying body, which is the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, or PEFC, based in Europe, who provides independent certification. Our standard is under that umbrella.

Going through the process of looking at their own changes PEFC had made to the broad standards, we had to make sure ours were in conformance with those, as well as getting review and feedback on how did the previous standards work – what’s missing, what isn’t working well, what seems to create more of a barrier rather than unnecessary in terms of what it means to demonstrate sustainability? They held public listening sessions. In fact, we did something in our national leadership conference (last) February, which was one of the last opportunities people had to be in the same room and had a good dialogue there. They did some additional work and then went back out for another comment period. Got really good feedback from that process. It resulted in coming forth with proposed modifications.

The good news, I would say, is there were not a lot of changes made. The overall feedback we got was that it’s working well. We did have a few issues we had to navigate based on changes in the PEFC standards that we had to be in conformance with, one about genetically-modified organisms, for example, and a really good debate on concerns about Chestnut restoration and whether that be a violation, or be at odds with the standards. Obviously, we all can understand the value of doing Chestnut restoration work that giving landowners that opportunity. It was navigating a few issues like that, definitional issues; trying to make sure that there was clarity.  And given the wide array and diversity of land ownership, size of ownership, the geographic diversity in this country, the nature of why landowners own land and their goals for land. That’s one of the pieces in a certification program like this, trying to make sure that what got put in place with standards was not so narrow in some way that it would be boxing out or just favoring folks who are doing a really effective job of sustainably managing a resource, but they’re coming at it because of geography, location goals that somehow was bumping against that. I feel really good about where we ended up. Those standards will be in effect as of January 1 next year. Lots of training this year for inspecting foresters and other partners who are involved in the implementation of the program.

One of the things that AFF is involved with now with The Nature Conservancy is the Family Forest Carbon Program. Can you talk about that program, where it’s at with its pilot project in Pennsylvania, and how does it overlap with the work you do with Tree Farm, as far as engaging folks to start thinking about carbon in those markets?

With our family forest carbon program, which we’re piloting right now in Pennsylvania, this was something that grew out of a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, where our two organizations are collaborating in this program. We started down this road again in looking at carbon and carbon markets and knowing how important natural climate solutions are to the huge challenge that we’re undertaking here, and forests, of course, can play a vital role in addressing these. The recognition that family-owned forests, which are the plurality, the single largest sector of forest land in this country, in effect were for the most part not eligible to participate simply because of the nature of how the rules work. Requirements of property-specific inventory, for example, make it fiscally impractical for landowners if you don’t own at least 2,500 to 3,000 acres or more; it just doesn’t pencil out.

We really wanted to develop an alternative methodology that would have at least as high a quality, in terms of the efficacy of what’s being done, but do so in a way that would remove that barrier from the individual property owner standpoint. What we’ve done working together is develop a methodology in which, instead of looking at a property basis, it’s basically the collection of property; it’s aggregating a number of landowners together and then having a sampling methodology that can be used to estimate the carbon and apply that to the individual property, keeping in mind that, again, the quality of this is really outstanding. It’s very impressive to me. I was not involved in the creation of this, so I’m complimenting my colleagues and our partners at TNC who did the work to make sure that, again, the quality of this is really excellent. As a landowner, you’re getting in a sense what you might call an average of what is estimated based on sampling methodology to come from the forest of a condition like yours. You might be producing a little bit more, you might be producing a little bit less, but we’re setting that aside. It’s then based on the sort of the average, and then through ongoing monitoring, we’ll continue to refine and verify the data with respect to what the actuals are. This is really rigorous but in doing it this way, it’s really spread out the costs across this landscape, in effect it makes it in a sense treated instead of all these individual properties, as a much larger set of properties in the same common ecological landscape, with similar base inventory, in terms of the forest that they have and then the actual practices they’re implementing.

The pilot that we’ve been doing has been both assessing the implementation of a couple of different practices and verifying that the approach that we’re taking is working as designed. We have developed a contract mechanism for these landowners and we had a really good back and forth, making sure that we have something that’s clear, that’s understood, that addresses questions that emerge so that it’s something that works for a landowner and that produces the desired impact over the life of this. And then obviously we’re doing the work as we do a lot of work in terms of landowner engagement; working with those landowners, getting contracts signed, and then they get an upfront payment plus payments over the life of the contract. Then that carbon is collected also, sort of gathered as a collective, and that then is available to be sold in the carbon market. This is resulting then in several things going on. One, the practices that we identified and selected were based on that the carbon benefit has to be clear and has to pencil out. It also needs to actually produce other benefits, as well. So this is in the case of where landowners are doing work, it’s good, sound, sustainable forest management. And as a result, this is going to produce other conservation benefits, as well. That’s all really positive. It’s a great way to further incentivize, or even initially incentivize landowners who might currently not be engaged to say, ‘oh, I’m interested in that.’ And that’s a great way to then get a relationship with landowners established with a resource professional who could help that landowner achieve their objectives. Here’s a way in which they’re producing this value. They can get paid for that value, but it’s not as though carbon is the only value or benefit that then these landowners are producing.

I’ve heard a target of about 20% enrollment. To try to get 20 percent of private forest landowners enrolled in it, what’s that process like? Are you having community meetings to try to bring folks in? How have you tried to recruit those landowners?

A range of techniques are being used. This is an example of where the American Tree Farm System, these are potentially some important prospects of landowners who can be positioned under the right circumstances to participate. Ultimately the objectives here are to really aggressively reach a large number of landowners. There are efforts going on using technology, like our Woods Camp technology that AFF has that uses social media to connect with landowners, give them some insights, get some information from them, and then identify a way to connect them to a resource professional to help them. Where there’s alignment between their objectives and this program, they get exposed to the program and that starts the process. We connect them to a forester who can work with the landowner to assess the situation and then sign them up when there’s alignment there. There’s also everything from earned media to networks that exist within the community to reach landowners. We’re really doing work that is both about looking at landowners who have some connection, but here’s a new opportunity for you, to landowners who are not currently engaged at all, who get exposed to this as an opportunity. Then if they raise their hand and are interested in learning more, hopefully, a significant percentage of them, there’s good alignment between their goals, the condition of their forest, and an opportunity to be part of this program.

Can you talk about place-based forest conservation, or priority forest landscape, and how you’ve seen that shift take place over the last decade, and how perhaps conservation districts can be a piece of that puzzle in different parts of the country?

What AFF did, starting a number of years ago, was to start to look when I mentioned the Driftless project that got underway in 2011 or 2012, as an initial conservation initiative. Then a couple of other pilot projects got started, one in Mississippi Piney Woods and then one in New England, and one in Oregon, and then suddenly there’s this recognition that we’re talking about such different conditions. And the broader sense, even what the primary conservation impact opportunities are, or imperatives, even, like fire risk reduction in the West. So that led to some assessments be done by AFF to look at where do family forestlands really pop from a standpoint of looking at where key conservation outcomes cannot occur at scale without family forest owners being part of that.

Fire-risk reduction is across boundaries; fire doesn’t care who owns the land, right? In that case, in order to develop resilient landscapes and to protect important assets at risk, whether that’s lives and property, whether that’s sources of water, that’s family forest lands even though the West is much more public lands. We think of public lands, but there’s a lot of spots in the West in which privately-owned lands play a critical role in achieving the desired outcomes to effectively reduce fire risk. That’s an example of a focus in the West. In the South, there are over 500 either listed or candidate species for listing that are forest-dependent. And yet it’s also an incredibly important wood basket, not only for the U.S., but for the world. And it’s a private land-dominated landscape. And so again, looking at this in the convergence of, how do we protect biological diversity while continuing to produce the forest products that are so important and vital. We have work that’s going on in the South that is targeting places in which private lands play a really vital role in protecting at-risk wildlife. For example, work that we’ve done in longleaf pine and shortleaf pine, and then even within the longleaf landscapes looking at how we protect specific species. A gopher tortoise is a really good example of work that we’re doing in partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service in several states within the context of the longleaf ecosystem, but doing very specific work to identify populations on private land, working with landowners, and then working with those landowners to implement practices that both improve the habitat and have the opportunity to expand those populations and in so doing provide vital information that can affect listing decisions, whether a decision to list the species or a decision to say de-list the species, given that sometimes species are listed because there’s a huge unknown about what’s going on, particularly outside of the public lands.

Another program I’d highlight, just to underscore the fact that as we’ve done some of this work, we’re recognizing that some of the ways in which we’ve engaged landowners in our work take us taking a step back to look and say how do we make sure we’re reaching the full array of landowners? So a program I would highlight is the Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention program (SFLR). It is a program started by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and just in 2019, their desire was not to continue to manage a program like that. They’re a stimulator and incubator. So AFF stepped in to work with these – at the time seven, now eight – different sites across now eight states in the southern U.S., and some incredible partners that are working in each of those states to implement a program to reach African-American landowners who, there’s a really sad history of the way in which they were treated by government and others that has led to a lot of weariness about engaging. When we’re out reaching out to landowners, these are landowners who are not likely to want to engage because they don’t know us, so there’s a lack of trust there for really good reason, again, for given history. Here we have these sites that are working locally and that are identifying and doing the hard work to develop trusting relationships with landowners and dealing with issues such as heirs property, where the challenge that exists with respect to the ownership of those lands that are held in effect as a collective ownership often because of a lack of wills that may go back generations, sorting out ownership has been a barrier. The lack of clear title has been a barrier to getting access to government programs, for example. It’s a working through to deal with issues of ownership, to clear title, to enable these landowners to see their forest as an asset, not as a liability, and to allow that land to start to work for them and for their future generations. That’s something that we always pride ourselves on – looking at the next generation and wanting to make sure these sports can benefit not only just current generations. There’s work that goes on there, and I just would highlight that there’s an example of a program that, personally, really opened my eyes to what we had just not been thinking a lot about. As we move fast and they’re trying to engage landowners, just the recognition that we can easily miss out on being able to serve and be in partnership with those who own forestlands if we just use our traditional approaches, our normal networks, our communication strategies that might work in certain circumstances, but may not work in others. We’re learning a lot now and really in looking at across all of our programs to make sure we have an understanding of who are all the owners. In the Western U.S., what does the nature of family ownership look like? What does it look like in the Southeast? What’s it like in the Midwest? And making sure that we’re being mindful of the nature of ownership and the different ways in which we need to do outreach to engage owners.

I think that’s a place where thinking about conservation districts and how valuable the boots on the ground of those who can provide services to landowners. I think they’re both vital partnerships to achieve the kind of conservation impact we all want, and second, become really great assets to help us collectively, the community collectively, identify what are the barriers and where are we successful? What’s not working well? Who aren’t we reaching? And how do we come together to problem-solve that, to identify barriers, figure out how to overcome those barriers so that we can maximize the amount of conservation that gets accomplished.

I appreciate you mentioning that. Conservation districts in different parts of the country are focused on helping underserved landowners and trying to be a first point-of-contact for a lot of those land ownerships.

I think we probably agree that underserved is a topic that will get more support and more attention in the coming years. Crystal ball time: anytime we go through changes in government, you see maybe some changes in priorities. In terms of forestry, what do you see on the horizon? What do you see for the next two years, four years, topics that you think will get some more attention or things that you guys might be looking at?

Certainly, we’re seeing an uptick in conversations addressing issues around the changing climate. That’s going to affect obviously the carbon program we already talked about it, as an example. But the recognition of how important forests are from a mitigation standpoint, I think, is going to get increased attention that can have a bearing on not just the implementation of, like a family forest carbon program, but also the ways in which how we think about policy from a forest standpoint and on private and public lands. In addition, I think climate adaptation is another piece. Forests are long-term. And, so, the idea of thinking about what does that mean for our forest? And I think that’s going to get a lot more continued or increased level of discussion and debate. And how do we provide tools to help landowners, public and private, identify how to make forests more resilient and adaptable to changing conditions? We’ve got to remember: this is not just an issue of temperature; this is an issue of precipitation, patterns and changes, seasonality, how invasives are going to be moving based on changes that are occurring… just the recognition of all the issues around that. So that’s a significant issue.

Another one is the issue of markets. Markets are vitally important for a variety of reasons. Working across the country, I see first-hand how when you’ve got strong markets, the ability to do the kind of management, whether that management is addressing invasive species issues, whether that’s management to feature particular forest types, markets enable so much management to occur. And not only is it because you now have something that’s an asset that one can then get paid to manage. In other cases, you’ve got the infrastructure that enables, professional logging workforces, you’ve got professional foresters, and other resource professionals in a greater concentration because there’s the economy of managing forests that’s at play. That is a huge asset in terms of the ability. In the West with some of the fire risk reduction, if you take those same forest conditions and put them in a place, say like Wisconsin, you now have landowners getting paid to do work that helps reduce fire risk. Well, in the absence of those markets, it’s now an expense of $2,500 or $3,000 an acre to do the same thing that a landowner could get paid to do in a place with robust markets. And where less robust markets at least break even. So in the case in which those markets are either very limited or non-existent, the infrastructure is even difficult. The scale of treatment that there’s desire to be done there, there isn’t the workforce there to implement those treatments much less the payment mechanisms. So markets is really, really an important issue. It’s also important from the perspective, too, and it will link back to the whole issue of climate. Wood is an incredible resource. It’s renewable, the primary energy input is the sun into producing wood, right? And so you see the great work going on with wood buildings now, the great technological advancements that are occurring with respect to how it is as not just a building material, but as an input into other materials even is increasing. The ability then to take how we can better utilize wood, which by the way, then creates markets, which enables the kind of management to produce, so you sort of filtered all the way through the system. There’s a lot, I expect increasing pace of work going on in the arena around markets, around wood technology, and the ability to utilize wood and wood elements, elements of wood in order to produce a whole range of things.

Messaging is incredibly important. You talked about markets, but not just to our clients or customers, forest landowners, but to the general public. Getting them to understand the link between markets and forest sustainability is incredibly important. AFF was a major contributor or a player in helping launch the North American Forest Partnership, which we know as Forest Proud, and other groups.

Talk about the importance of groups that can help with external messaging when it comes to all of the benefits of forest lands and how that helps groups like NACD and conservation districts and AFF, and our agency partners to paint this big picture or full picture of forests and all of the elements that are needed to have healthy forests but also thriving markets, and things that will allow us to continue that into coming generations.

Forest Proud is an important initiative that’s really based on the recognition that there is a disconnect that exists in terms of how the public often thinks about forests and understands forests. For a long time, the big debate was of course the pros and cons of cutting trees. And I just watch how the debate has changed. That debate still exists of course, but let’s look through at the dialogue in the West. If you go back 15 years ago, or maybe even just 10 years ago, and much more, still this issue about how much forestland do we set aside and the debates about whether we should allow harvesting and under what conditions, to a debate or a dialogue now that is around the fact that these ecosystems are so out of whack for a bunch of reasons as to why, and the recognition that just letting them alone doesn’t actually produce the desired outcomes for anyone at this point.

As a result, because the natural fire systems have been disrupted for so long, it’s now a matter of we’ve got to do work in these forests to ultimately return, and then to return to be able to use even fire as a management tool. So the nature of that, and some of the debates that exist around that, have just really changed. But the fundamental underneath public awareness and understanding of that, it’s hard. It’s hard to sort of, if you don’t live and breathe forests the way we do, it’s hard to sort of see it in its complexity and its depth. And the goal is not to have the general public become experts in forests, but it is more to draw attention to all the ways in which forests affect their lives and the ways in which they might think as a consumer, as a voter, as a citizen, in thinking about forests and engaging in dialogue, whether it’s on public policy issues, whether it’s on their own like, ‘Oh, I actually own forest land. I haven’t thought a lot about it. I, I want to learn more, I want to start to engage.’ And then as a consumer, what are the choices I’m making? I think we have a great story to tell, and with respect to forests and forest products, as compared to many alternatives, in certain circumstances.

If we can reach folks in a way to have them engage effectively to understand, and then as they make choices and they engage in dialogue, suddenly that can affect both public policy, it can affect consumer choices, it can affect what companies do in recognition of how are they paying attention to these issues in what they’re doing. I think those efforts are really important.

A real quick story. We’re working on white oak restoration, as well. White Oak is an example of a resource that there’s a lot of oak, and in fact, in the central hardwood region of the country, which roughly goes from southern New England all the way over to southern Wisconsin, Minnesota, down to Arkansas, all the way through the northern part of the South, to the East Coast. It’s a big, big region. There are 100 million acres of oak and of Upland Oak, and yet a lot of that is mature and getting older. There’s much, much less than you would expect if you were talking about sustaining this resource over time with younger oak, and there’s a bunch of reasons why that is. But what’s interesting is a few years ago, the spirits industry, because of their reliance on white oak barrels for their products, suddenly became aware of the fact that a few decades down the road here, we’re going to run into a problem. Here’s a nontraditional entity really for the first time diving into a debate about forests and wanting to engage in forests. And I’ll tell ya, it’s interesting to see how, like wildlife can get the attention of people, but boy, talk about someone’s favorite drink, and the fact that future forests might have a bearing on there, there might be a problem here, an issue here? That gets people’s attention. ‘well, if it’s going to affect my bourbon supply!? Let’s talk.’

It’s great. It’s just the nontraditional way, again, of reaching people to say, well, tell me about this, what’s going on here and how the importance of managing forests to regenerate oak and how we’ve got to do that now if we want oak decades into the future, a mature oak that gets in the future given the current mature oak will no longer be around. Just an example again, of if we can help connect dots for people, even if it’s in unusual ways, now suddenly there’s an awareness about what it means to be stewards of the land and why we should be looking to help landowners be those good stewards. And again, conservation districts play really an important role in that.

Check out NACD’s Forestry Notes for more Q&As and stories like this.

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