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Sunday
Feb242013

Good reviews for online forestry program

Woodland Steward Program's creators ponder how to boost enrollment

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine’s Future writer

Cory Gardiner’s woodlot in Woolwich has been in the family for 90 years. Larry Beauregard has owned his woodland in Old Town since 1980. And Julie Foyt’s 40 acres of woods in Monmouth became hers only year before last.

These three share something other than the fact that each owns a piece of the Maine woods -- they are all graduates of the new Woodland Steward program, an online education program that is getting good reviews from participants.

Larry Beauregard in his Old Town woodlot“I would grade it very highly. It had enough detail that if you were a curious person you could click on the links that are everywhere in each module to take it to the next step,” said Beauregard. “It gives an idea of the breadth of activities involved in woodlot management. 

Foyt agrees: “I highly recommend it. It’s perfectly suited to someone like myself who is sort of new to having a woodlot and trying to understand it, and not only the woods, but other aspects, everything from taxes to regulations, what type of woods might be there and that sort of thing.”

The Woodland Steward Program was launched last fall after more than two years in development. It is an online forestry education program designed for woodland owners and those thinking about buying a woodlot. It is a collaboration of the Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, and the New England Forestry Foundation. SWOAM and Maine TREE are among the partners in the Forests for Maine's Future Program.

The  program consists of 10 modules covering everything from woodland ecology to planning a harvest to woodlot finances. The course, which is done entirely online, costs $20. Participants take it at their own pace. Each module includes a quiz at the end to test your newly acquired knowledge. The modules are a fairly quick read, but are liberally sprinkled with links allowing those taking the course to probe more deeply into specific topics.

Entrance to the Beauregard woodsThe course is designed for novices, not forestry professionals. Its creators are hoping that it will enroll 150 people this year and that eventually as many as 300 people a year will take it. By late February nearly 50 people had signed up for the program.

Tom Doak, the executive director of SWOAM, said the creating organizations are still struggling with how to get the word out and convince woodland owners that they could benefit by taking the course. They have publicized it through a press release to the general media, articles in the organizations’ newsletters and websites and two direct mailings to people who aren’t members of the three organizations, he said.

“I don’t know if they’re just not used to online programs or what,” Doak said. “Online programs in forestry are something of a new adventure. I’m guessing that people are used to the more traditional format, where you sit in a classroom or go out into the woods. I think it’s going to take a little time for people to get used to the idea. It’s a little bit of an unknown.” 

Doak said the Woodland Steward Program is “a real complement to traditional methods and the real beauty of the idea is to do it on your own time and at your own pace. There is a huge number of landowners that would benefit from it. There’s plenty of audience, I think it’s a matter of marketing, to be honest with you. And people getting used to online (educational programs).”

If Gardiner, Beauregard and Foyt are any indication, a variety of people are enrolling in the course. Some have owned woodland for a long time, others are new owners. Some have extensive knowledge of forests, others have little. Gardiner, Beauregard and Foyt give it good grades for offering a lot of information, readability, and wide-ranging subject matter. But all have some recommendations for tweaking it to make it even better.

Beauregard is a retired medical geneticist who has made forestry his new avocation in retirement, even going so far as to take three courses at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources last year. He jokes that he was the “oldest undergraduate.” He and his wife Barbara have owned a 116-acre woodlot in Old Town since 1980. Purchased originally as an investment and for recreation, they now view it as a way of practicing stewardship and developing a legacy. They go there two or three days a week from their home in Brewer. Beauregard spends his time thinning and pruning trees and identifying crop trees. But “I also walk the dog, smoke a good cigar, and just wander through the woods.”

winter harvest at the Beauregard woodsThe couple had a management plan done in 2004 and a harvest in 2005. They’re now looking at upgrading the management plan. Beauregard said he signed up for the Woodland Steward Program hoping that would help him refine his objectives.

“What I was looking for was a little bit of information to help me rationalize and formulate updated objectives for dealing with the land. What we have out there now is mixed hard and softwoods, with a little brook running through it. There’s a wetland with beaver lodges and wood duck boxes. We have a little corner that we’re developing as a little sugar bush. All it has is red maple, but the red maple is working to yield a good syrup,” said Beauregard.

He said one of the things he found most valuable was the module on forest ecology. “It helped me understand the interdependence of a lot of things within the land:  water cycles, fungi, succession issues, tree competition and climate. All those things are interrelated and a better appreciation for that certainly helped me out.”

Another particularly worthwhile thing was the module on planning a successful harvest. He said it reinforced his conviction that “it’s absolutely critical to become involved with a consulting forester.” Yet another was “the whole aspect related to taxes and taxation. Getting a reasonable handle on those was really helpful. That module really highlighted a few things that I knew in the back of my mind, but it provided more information.”

Beauregard said he also values what he learned about estate planning since he’s trying to “figure out a way to transfer my interest in this hobby to my children” who all live out of state.

June and Julie Foyt crossing the bridge into the woodlotJulie Foyt said the Woodland Steward Program helped her become more intimately acquainted with the 40 acres of forestland she and her husband Ethan bought from retired federal forester Paul Johnson in mid 2011.

A mother of three young children who also works full time as a mechanical engineer at a filtration system design firm in Winthrop, Foyt said she signed up for the program and completed a module every week or two, though the pace slackened a little during the busy holiday season.

“I completed the course but I can go back to it many times. There’s so much information in it it’s unbelievable,” she said. “Every module seemed to have something that was very interesting to me. The ones I go back to more are the recognizing pests, what the symptoms are, what to look for basically. If anything I would have liked to see more pictures of what to look for. I’m a visual person.”

Other subjects covered in the course that she really appreciated were tax law and harvesting. “There were things I didn’t know. That prompted me to go back to our forester and ask whether need to do a timber inventory and whether we should do that right away.”

Foyt said the modules contain “really good links to fantastic outside sites. But I found that if I followed the links right away I would get sidetracked completely and never make it back. Which was wonderful in a way because I would bee immersed in something else.” 

Julie Foyt and sons Rory (with map) and Zane (sleeping in the backpack) explore their woodlotCory Gardiner said she enrolled in the Woodland Steward Program hoping it would help her figure out what to do with her 100-acre woodlot in Woolwich. “It was my grandparents’ summer place, then my parents had it and my husband and I took it over in 1995. It’s been in the family for about 90 years.” The last harvesting done was some 25 years ago, by her father.

“There was some very useful information about harvesting and tax issues, that kind of thing,” said Gardiner. “I was pretty familiar already with the more general things about what’s in the woods. They were interesting to look at but didn’t add that much to what I already knew. I don’t think it’s given me all the tools I need but it’s given me some leads as to where to go and some thoughts about what we need to be thinking about.”

Gardiner and Foyt’s experience with the course highlight the different ways people approach it.

Foyt took weeks to complete the course, spending hours happily sidelined in one of the many websites the course links to for more information on particular topics. Gardiner, on the other hand, said “there were a lot of interesting resources cited in the program, but while you’re reading it and taking the quiz you really don’t have time to check out the links.”

All our interviewees had some recommendations for improving the course, its flow or the presentation.

Foyt likes the idea of more photos, saying, “I’m a visual person. I learned to look for crown dieback, but I would like to have seen a photo of it.” She would also have liked the option to have a printed version of the course to use as a reference work.

Whitetail deer in the Beauregards' woodlotGardiner questioned whether a couple of the answers on the quizzes were correct. Doak said the committee overseeing the program is taking a look at those. It’s important  to get that feedback, he said. Gardiner said she also found “some of the questions in the quizzes were kind of like trick questions. It would have been useful to have a little explanation on the answers on those.” For instance, she said, one asked “Coniferous trees bear pine cones, true false?” Gardiner said she answered true, then was stumped for a moment when told she was wrong. But then she got it. “The answer is false only because of the word pine. It would have been helpful to have it say that coniferous trees bear cones, but only pines bear pine cones.”

Beauregard suggests moving the module on laws and regulations farther back in the course. “That module came in right at the beginning and I found it intimidating,” he said. “If you think in terms of the development of the modules you try to stimulate some interest in the concept of sustainable forestry. Don’t scare people at the beginning is essentially the message I would have.”

Even with those suggestions, however, Gardiner, Beauregard and Foyt all enthusiastically recommend the course. Foyt said the modules are packed with information and “even though I have done each of the quizzes there’s so much more to learn.” She plans to go back to the course again and again, mining it for information that will allow her to deepen her relationship with her woods.

Joe Rankin is a forestry writer and beekeeper who lives in New Sharon.