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Sunday
Oct242010

Seeing the People Behind the Trees

Fresh from the Woods

Seeing the people behind the trees

By JOE RANKIN

A few years ago Wendy Farrand, a rep for Maine Custom Woodlands, learned a valuable lesson.

She was trying to sign up a large forestland owner as a client and started touting the fact that her company’s people were all master loggers and sensitive to environmental issues and so on and so on.

And she watched as the guy got quiet and stonefaced. Her sales pitch had turned him off.

“It was a really big thing for me, our environmental awareness. He perceived it as being more red tape and not something he wanted to deal with,” she said.

She didn’t get the contract.

“The lesson is that you have to ask the questions before you offer up the information,” she said. “I was glad that it happened to me early on in my career.”

That lesson was reinforced for Farrand on Nov. 5.

She was one of some 40 foresters, land trust reps, logging company people, watershed managers, state forest service officials and University of Maine forestry students who turned out in Auburn to hear a trio of preeminent forest researchers and educators talk about how they can do a better job of connecting with family forestland owners. The workshop was organized by the Maine Forest Working Group and Threshold to Maine RC&D Area. 

The presenters’ message was one almost any successful car salesman or insurance agent takes to heart within a few days on the job or they starve: listen to people before you try to sell them something, target your message to their concerns and needs, and figure out how to reach out to them when they need your services, not before or after.

It’s an important message for the forestry and natural resources crowd, who are often trying to get landowners interested in cutting timber, developing a forestry plan, signing a conservation easement, joining a land trust or allowing public recreation trails on their property.

Making those connections is key because, when it comes to forests, and other important aspects of life, informed decisions are generally better ones, especially given all that forests do for humanity -- cooling the earth, cleaning the air, harboring wildlife, slowing erosion, providing fuel, furniture and paper.

Giving natural resource professionals the tools to help them communicate with forestland owners is particularly important in the U.S., because of who owns America’s forests.

You might think that it’s the federal government, or big private companies. You would be wrong, said Brett Butler, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service and the author of “Family Forest Owners of the U.S.”

Nationally, family forestland owners hold 35 percent of the timberland, two percentage points more than the federal government. In Maine they own 33 percent, with the feds a mere 1 percent and large private timber companies another 61 percent.

(Graphic by Brett Butler, U.S. Forest Service)Sixty percent of family forestland owners have less than 10 acres. But most of the acreage is held by people who own between 50 and 500 acres, said Butler.

“If we’re interested in forests we need to be interested in family forest owners. They rule the day,” said Butler.

And, why do those people own forestland? If you said timber production you would again be wrong. And, you might have lost a client.

In Maine, a 2006 survey found that timber production is way down on their priority list --with aesthetics, privacy, a camp, family legacy and nature protection at the top of the list.

(Graphic from Sustaining Family Forests Initiative)                                             

Since people own forestland for a wide variety of reasons “there’s no way that one message is going to work for all of them,” said Mary Tyrrell of the Yale Program on Private Forests. “Targeted marketing in forest outreach is your first priority.”

For instance, surveys show that of the people who own between 10 and 1,000 acres of forestland, the biggest chunk -- 44 percent nationally, 50 percent in Maine -- could be classified as being of the “woodland retreat” variety.

Many don’t even think of themselves as forestland owners. And they value their land for its beauty, nature and wildlife and recreation far more than its timber production potential.

Trying to sell those people on cutting trees for cash alone would be a non-starter, said Tyrrell. Instead, an emphasis on making the forest healthier, improving wildlife habitat and, by the way, you’ll make a little money would be a better bet.

For the 29 percent of Mainers who see themselves as active managers of their forestland the message could be one of healthy woods and financial benefits. For the 10 percent who say they own their land for supplemental income the pitch could be income.

“You have to talk about what’s going to appeal to them. Once you get people engaged then you can get them to talk about things like management plans and stewardship plans,” Tyrrell said.

Tyrrell also noted that the reason many forestland owners don’t do anything with their property is not that they don’t want to, or aren’t willing. It’s that they’re “worried about doing the wrong thing,” she said.

Many people mistakenly assume it’s best if the forest simply manages itself, said Dave Kittridge of the University of Massachusetts.

“For most people the woods run in the background of their lives, ready to be used on an as needed basis, kind of like insurance, or the virus checker on your computer,” said Kittridge.

That doesn’t mean that they’re bad, “people are just people, not perfect,” he added.

Absent a plan, however, said the three presenters, people tend to make big decisions about the future of their land -- logging, selling, handing down to their heirs -- at times of emotional stress. When there’s been a death in the family or when someone’s sick and money is needed to cover the bills.

And who do they turn to for help?

Not, generally, to foresters or other resource professionals, the people who could give them solid info on options.

Instead, surveys have found that they reach out to other landowners, family members, neighbors and “locals” who have status in the community, said Kittridge.

They’re also increasingly turning to the internet.

This graphic shows a fictional, but typical, social network that a person, Mr. Everyman, might tap to make decisions about the future of his forestland. (Graphic courtesy Dave Kittridge) 
The challenge for most forestry professionals, then, is to help people make informed decisions about their land. The result is much more likely to be that forests stay as forests, and stay healthy, than it would otherwise be, said Kittridge.

One thing that works, he said, is educating people in local communities who can go back and be a source of good information for their neighbors and friends.

It could be something like the MassAcorn website, which offers a wide variety of natural resources information targeted at landowners in two watersheds in the Berkshires. Kittridge warned that just setting up a great website won’t be enough, you have to publicize it in other media to let people know it’s there. And then, too often, they forget. So you have to publicize again, and again.

The Massachusetts Keystone Project goes at it from another direction. In intensive three-day programs it turns interested citizens into local ambassadors on natural resource issues.

Graduates surveyed say they’ve referred neighbors to resource professionals, put articles in the newspaper, joined their conservation commission, made presentations to local civic groups -- in other words, taken on the roles of informed “locals.”

Investing in that type of social capital, said Kittridge, is not only effective, it’s a bargain, compared with the cost of hiring full or part-time forest educators.

The University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests has developed a program to better understand family forest landowners and the challenges they face.

The Center’s Spencer Meyer said an outreach plan now being developed will borrow from lessons learned in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

“With the help of our many partners in the state, we want to listen to family landowners all over Maine and learn what they need to keep their woods as woods,” Meyer said.

Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine's Future, a collaboration of the University of Maine, Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and the Maine Forest Service.