A new online course can help you enjoy and manage your woodland
By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future writer
Picture this: Three generations of a family huddled around a computer screen, reading, talking, and answering questions online. No, they’re not facebooking, skyping or playing the latest space aliens shoot ’em up game – they’re learning about their woods.
That’s a scene that the creators of a new online forestry education course would like to see take place in living rooms and dens around Maine with the debut of the new Woodland Steward Program. The 10-part online course is designed to help family woodland owners learn how to manage and enjoy their woodland, while setting the stage for passing it to the next generation.
The course is now available at woodland-steward.org.
For $20 you get a comprehensive and entertaining education in woodlot basics, from Maine forest laws to insect pests, how to pull off a successful timber harvest to keeping your woodlot finances straight. At the end you get a certificate of completion and an invitation to participate in a field day to put it all together and reinforce what you’ve learned.
The course provides “the basics that every landowner ought to know,” said Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners’ Association of Maine, which created the course with the Maine TREE Foundation and the New England Forestry Foundation.
It is designed for the uninformed or new landowner — the novice. It is meant to inspire them to learn more about their land, its ecological and economic benefits, and to take steps to manage it sustainably.
Studies show that many woodland owners don’t manage their woodlots, essentially leaving things up to nature, because they don’t have the knowledge they need to make good decisions and they’re fearful of doing something wrong.
Also a concern: woodlot owners are older on average than the general population. Maine has 120,000 small woodland owners, and two-thirds of them are over 55, 40 percent are over 65, that means a lot of woodland, much of it in more densely populated areas of the state, is slated to change hands over the next couple of decades, creating a tremendous need to educate people about managing small woodlands.
“We recognized that there was going to be a lot of land changing hands and lot of people who own small woodlots don’t actively manage it,” said Maine TREE Executive Director Sherry Huber. “I’m a small woodlot owner who does manage my woodland and I’ve seen the benefits of trying to improve it. It makes a lot of sense for people to do more with their woodlot if they know enough. The first rule is to go out and hire a forester. But many people don’t want to spend that kind of money. So maybe with this introduction they will recognize the value of doing that.”
Said Sonya LeClair, programs coordinator for the New England Forestry Foundation: “We know that landowners face multiple complex decisions about their land, and their collective decisions will have a dramatic impact on the future of Maine’s landscape. Unfortunately, these decisions are often reactive – as a result of a life event or unexpected solicitation – which are neither in the landowner’s best interests nor in the best interest of the land. The primary goal was to provide landowners with the resources they need to understand their land and various aspects of forest management, which we hope will prepare them to make informed, proactive decisions.”
The organizations secured funding for the project from the Horizon Foundation, the Davis Conservation Foundation and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. They hired a team of brothers – forester Harold Burnett and writer Lee Burnett – to write the course modules. Oakleaf Studios of Old Town undertook the web development.
They took inspiration from the Yankee Woodlot television series that originally ran on the Maine Public Broadcasting Series in the 1970s and from similar online courses offered elsewhere, including Nova Scotia, Virginia and Georgia.
Doak said the online learning experience offers tremendous versatility and is likely to attract people who wouldn’t be willing to commit to driving to once-a-week class offered at the local high school.
Doak’s fondest vision is of multiple generations taking the course together: a grandfather, perhaps, his son or daughter, and their children.
The course starts with an an overview titled “Getting Started.” The second module covers forest laws and regulations. The next four deal with biology: figuring out what trees are on your property, forest ecology, wildlife, and insect pests and diseases. Modules 7 through 9 cover setting up a successful timber harvest, woodlot finances, and non-timber resources, such as maple syrup or fir tips for wreathmaking. The last sums everything up under the “putting it all together” title.
Doak said he found the last especially good. The individual “chapters,” or modules are each interesting, but “you’ve got to understand how each relates to the other, and this module does that,” he said.
Huber said she liked all the modules, and learned something from each. “If I had to grade us on the product, I’d give us an A,” Huber said. “I was impressed. I learned a lot. It is very instructive and interesting, kind of like reading a good non-fiction article.”
Each module covers a lot of ground.
The What’s On It module, for instance, deals with how to use a tree identification book to find out what trees are on the property, how soils determine what trees grow where, how to read the clues to piece together the land use history of the property, where to find information about plants and animals on the property, and the importance of streams and wetlands and how to read your forest for signs of damage from weather, insects and disease.
One big benefit is the clickable links to other sites, such as Maine’s Geographical Information System, for instance, or the NRCS site. “We have tons of links. You can go anywhere you want.” said Huber. “That’s really helpful. This is not a bad deal to get all that information at your fingertips.”
One of the big questions the organizations had to answer was how much to charge for the course.
They decided in favor of a fee, partly to emphasize that the course has value. The amount finally settled on: $20, is about what you might pay for a paperback book on the same subject. Payment is easy. Do it via PayPal and you can start immediately. Send in a check and it’ll be only three to five days before you get the necessary passwords.
Development of the Woodland Steward Program cost about $26,000. The fees will go to pay costs of maintaining the site and updating content, and staging the field day. Doak and Huber say they’re hoping 150 people will take the course in the first year and that that number will double by the third year.
Joe Rankin is a forestry writer who lives in New Sharon.