Zooming loggers, high-fiving naturalists, and forest landowners education
Extension professionals reach out in new ways
March 15, 2021
In a typical year, getting training on logging practices in Virginia would mean going out into the woods and talking face to face with natural resource professionals. For a volunteer Master Naturalist, service hours might include leading school groups on a hunt for wild mushrooms. And forest landowners would look forward to getting together with peers and professionals to share ideas and swap success stories.
But in this year of Zoom meetings and social distancing, getting people together to learn about natural resources is a steeper challenge. In response, Virginia Cooperative Extension personnel affiliated with the College of Natural Resources and Environment are implementing new ways to provide outreach to the individuals and communities they serve. Surprisingly, they are finding that new approaches can yield positive benefits.
“At the foundation of our land-grant mission is our service to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer. “Our core outreach programs exemplify public service and engagement, and we’ve not missed a beat during COVID.”
LOGGERS GET SHARP ON VIRTUAL LEARNING
Virginia’s Sustainable Harvesting and Resources Professional (SHARP) Logger Program has provided training for loggers and other professionals since 1996 and has been coordinated through the college’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation since 2002.
“Our programs meet the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s logger training requirements, and most of the large forest industry companies in Virginia require loggers to attend this training,” explained Associate Professor Scott Barrett, who supervises the program. “The forest industry has a vested interest in the sustainability of forest resources.”
Participants complete an initial core training program and then maintain their status by earning 12 continuing education credits every three years. “We’ve had some online training available for several years, but we’ve had to significantly increase our online and virtual offerings,” said Extension Associate Karen Snape, who provides support for the program. “We’ve adjusted to offer our courses online and asynchronously, and expanded our offerings of continuing education courses.”
Asynchronous courses do not have set meeting times; each individual can learn at their own pace. One benefit is that loggers who would ordinarily have to take days off work can more easily accommodate classes into their demanding work schedules. “Most loggers are working on a production basis. When they have to take a day off for training, that can impact them significantly,” Barrett said.
Snape notes that participants have adjusted surprisingly well to virtual training. “I’ve definitely seen an increase in their comfort level. Maybe it’s having kids doing school online or connecting with loved ones via Zoom, but their capacity to make use of our online resources has improved.”
VIRGINIA MASTER NATURALISTS PITCH IN
The Virginia Master Naturalist Program, a statewide organization of 29 chapters and more than 2,200 volunteers, works to provide education, outreach, and service to individuals and communities through citizen science and stewardship.
“There is still a big demand for people wanting to become Master Naturalists,” said Program Director Michelle Prysby. “But when you’re facing a global pandemic, that puts the brakes on a lot of what volunteers are able to do. A big message from me to volunteers is to do what you can, and we’ll do what we can to find alternative ways to keep people engaged.”
Many of the regional chapters have moved their meetings online, and the program has increased opportunities for online learning, providing more than 20 webinars to connect volunteers to new service projects and learning opportunities.
Debbie McDonald (’77 B.S. biology), a Master Naturalist in Fairfax County, has been helping the chapter adjust to the challenges. “We were in the midst of our spring basic training course when the COVID outbreak struck,” said McDonald, who is a member of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society. “We had to transition to a virtual classroom for the 12-week course and figure out a way to do smaller field trips that met state guidelines, which was a huge commitment for our trainers and presenters.”
Another outreach effort is the High Five From Nature webinar series, each of which covers five concepts or facts about subjects ranging from stream water quality to invasive insects to Virginia songbirds. “The videos have been really popular,” Prysby said. “People are looking for something to do at home, and one thing that really unites our volunteers is that they love to learn. Some of the videos are narrated by Master Naturalists, so there’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning taking place.”
Of course, most people who choose to become Master Naturalists do so because they love the outdoors. With outdoor recreation being one of the safest activities during COVID, parks and other natural areas have seen a dramatic spike in visitors, and Master Naturalists have pitched in to help. “There’s a great demand on staff in our state and national parks. While our volunteers aren’t a replacement for those key workers, they at least provide an element of consistency,” Prysby noted.
FROM WOODLAND RETREATS TO ONLINE MEETS
The Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program targets new and experienced forest landowners while also serving as a conduit between landowners and federal, state, and local agencies and partnerships committed to the positive stewardship of natural resources.
“Our goal is to educate landowners so that they can make good decisions about their forestland,” explained Program Coordinator Jennifer Gagnon. “We strive to get new and established landowners involved and informed about how to be good stewards of their land.”
Gagnon stresses that while hands-on, in-person education is the strength of the program, finding alternative ways to reach landowners has pushed her to learn new skills. “Our strength is in-person work, in putting equipment in people’s hands to show them what we’re talking about. Peer-to-peer education is powerful, and it is difficult to replicate online, so we had to take a step back and rethink how to keep landowners engaged.”
One effort that has seen a positive change is Preparing for Generation NEXT, a workshop aimed at helping landowners plan a family legacy for their land. “For 10 years we’ve struggled to get multiple generations of a family in a room together,” Gagnon said. “This year we had to convert those workshops online. To our surprise, we found that the format made it easier for generations of families to participate together.”
Another success is a video series called Fifteen Minutes in the Forest, where experts present forest topics ranging from invasive plant species to how to age deer jawbones to Virginia’s Christmas tree industry. “It’s been a steep learning curve, from figuring out how to use video editing software and how to film effectively in the woods,” Gagnon admitted. “But we now have 45 videos and 350 subscribers on our YouTube channel, and we’ve heard that teachers are using our work in their classrooms. It’s gotten people engaged, and we plan to continue this series going forward.”
RETURN TO (A NEW) NORMAL
Extension personnel are looking forward to getting back to the in-person outreach work that lies at the core of their mission. But if there is a silver lining to a disrupted year, it is that staff and volunteers have been challenged to find new ways to engage with individuals and communities.
“This year has really pushed us out of our comfort zones,” Gagnon said. “We’ve been challenged to learn new technologies and figure out new avenues to satisfy our goals. None of this was what any of us anticipated, but the changes we’ve made will have positive and long-lasting effects.”