Technical Service Provider Training to Improve Services for Family Forest Landowners

Final Report for EW12-026

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2012: $43,874.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Lindsay Malone
Northwest Natural Resource Group
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Project Information

Abstract:

Northwest Natural Resource Group (NNRG) reached out to more than 100 natural resource professionals and 2,500 family forest owners through the project, “Technical Service Provider Training to Improve Services for Family Forest Landowners” funded by Western SARE. NNRG hosted two two-day workshops for natural resource professionals interested in the Technical Service Provider (TSP) program; 15 people attended the workshops and four professionals reported completing the TSP application process.

NNRG promoted the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to more than 2,500 forest producers (family forest landowners) in Oregon and Washington. Outreach efforts through the “Funding Forest Stewardship” series included emails, newsletters, workshop handouts, social medial, presentations at landowner workshops, and on-one-one landowner interactions. From 2012 to spring 2015, more than 68 forest producers directly informed NNRG that they applied to NRCS for EQIP funds to develop management plans and conduct conservation practices to enhance timber quality and overall productivity on more than 1,800 acres.

NNRG obtained information from NRCS about EQIP contracts awarded during the project period. From 2012-2014, NRCS in Washington State reports contracting 67 Conservation Activity Plans (CAPs; i.e. forest management plans) and contracting for 776 EQIP conservation practices for forest stand improvements. Per a Freedom of Information Act request to NRCS, the agency reports that in Oregon it issued 890 EQIP contracts from 2012-2014. These Oregon EQIP contracts include all agricultural and forestry related practices. Agency staff indicate that they cannot provide further breakdown on the contracts due to privacy concerns and legal restrictions.

NNRG worked with 17 forest producers during this project and assisted them in conducting commercially viable selective harvests across 330 acres. These ecological thinning projects averaged 20 acres per producer and removed 30-40% of stand volume. Thinning treatments focused on the removal of suppressed and dying trees and were designed to reduce fuel loads, promote growth of remaining trees, and increase structural complexity. Each harvest employed, on average, 3.25 natural resource contractors (logging crew and truck driver) for 3-6 weeks, produced an average of 69,000 board feet of wood material, and grossed an average of $1,600 per acre ($820 per thousand board feet). In total, the ecological thinning projects contributed more than $500,000 to the regional economy. 

Project Objectives:

Through the "Technical Service Provider Training to Improve Services for Family Forest Landowners" project, NNRG sought to cultivate a broader network of forestry professionals able to respond to producers’ demand for EQIP projects and the broader need for assistance with forest conservation practices.

At the outset of this project, NNRG identified the following specific performance targets:

  • Increase the number of TSPs to a total of at least 12 in Washington and Oregon.
  • Increase the number of forestland owners applying for EQIP projects to include 80-100 new projects over two years.
  • Increase the number of NNRG member landowners, by an additional 6-10 per year, who choose to undertake forest health thinning operations outside of EQIP projects as a way of generating sustainable revenue and fund restoration activities.

Introduction:

In Washington State, 1.8 million acres of rural family forestlands are at high risk of conversion to other uses (Bradley, 2009). Forest land conversion to non-forest use in the Northwest is influenced by real estate values, infrastructural changes in the forest products industry, intergenerational ownership, and population growth. Forest conversion threatens individual communities and the region with the loss of the essential ecosystem services these forests provide such as clean water, flood control, carbon sequestration, green space, and wildlife habitat. Loss of family forest lands also has impacts on rural economies through long-term job deterioration and increased poverty.

In order to address conversion trends and build long-term economic health in rural areas, forest producers in the Northwest need ways to sustain the economic viability of their operations while also enhancing productivity and resiliency of their lands. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary conservation program administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is a cost-share program to address these needs. EQIP provides cost-share payments and technical assistance for the implementation of certain conservation practices such as pre?commercial thinning, stand release, culvert replacements for fish passage, management plan creation, and other practices important to improving and maintaining resilient forests and high-functioning ecosystems.

Conservation projects accomplished through EQIP remove barriers to sustainable rural economic development by improving forest health and empowering forest producers with the information and tools necessary to make long-term forest management decisions. This program can be particularly important for forest producers who are new to forest ownership and management. For example, many properties under new ownership are stocked for industrial-scale management and require thinning to improve stand health and enhance wood quality for greater revenue generation. Through simple steps such as creating a forest management plan, EQIP gives landowners a basis on which to make informed decisions about forest management and conduct revenue generating practices.

In 2011, EQIP was considered an underutilized resource for family forest landowners in Washington and Oregon; despite the potential for the program to address pressing conservation and economic development needs. Primary barriers to broader use of EQIP in the Northwest were considered a lack of landowner awareness of the program and insufficient staffing to handle an increase in applicants. In particular, there were insufficient numbers of Technical Service Providers (TSPs), individuals qualified to provide technical assistance on behalf of the USDA. TSPs can assist landowners with conservation planning, design, installation, and checkout of approved conservation practices. In 2011, it was thought that NNRG staff members were two of only four TSPs available in western Washington and northern Oregon. The training necessary to become a TSP is time consuming and challenging.  Developing a curriculum to help forestry professionals through the registration process that included in-person instruction and integrated additional market development topics and skills enhancement training was thought to be more successful.

Professional foresters face other barriers to providing comprehensive and innovative services to landowners. Traditional foresters with many years of experience are often unfamiliar with new technology such as GPS devices, GIS mapping, digital field data collection, and on-line information resources. Newly trained foresters lack the professional connections and experience to establish contracts and working relationships with landowners. Both demographics of professional foresters could expand their client lists and services by becoming TSPs.

This project focused on reaching out to 100 natural resource professionals about the TSP program and benefits of EQIP. NNRG hosted two two-day workshops to assist natural resource professionals in becoming TSPs. Further, NNRG efforts focused on outreach to 2,500 family forest owners to increase awareness about EQIP and other resources such that forest producers could take actions to improve stand health, timber quality, and overall forest productivity.

Work Cited

Bradley, G.,B. Boyle, L.W. Rogers, A.G. Cooke, J. Perez-Garcia, S. Rabotyagov. 2009. Retention of High?Valued Forest Lands at Risk of Conversion to Non?Forest Uses in Washington State. Prepared for the Washington State Legislature and Washington Department of Natural Resources. 61 pp.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kirk Hanson
  • Rick Helman
  • Lindsay Malone
  • Dan Stonington

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

NNRG used three methods to achieve the desired objectives of this project: 1) develop and host workshops for professionals, 2) engage landowners unfamiliar with EQIP through outreach content that provided examples of “success stories” and connect them to financial and technical resources, and 3) provide direct assistance for landowners transitioning from passive forest management to active forest management.

Workshops

One approach was to organize and host comprehensive workshops where forestry professionals were instructed in detail about the TSP program and how to manage EQIP projects. NNRG hosted two two-day workshops in Tacoma, WA. Instructors for the course were NNRG’s Kirk Hanson, who is a TSP, and NRCS’ Puget Sound forester, Joshua Himsl. Mr. Hanson has been a registered TSP since 2007 and has worked with more than 40 forest producers on CAPs and EQIP projects. Mr. Himsl administers EQIP contracts and provides forest producers with technical oversight on conducting conservation practices. In addition, by having an NRCS staff person at the workshop NNRG was able to help participants complete the eAuthentication process, navigate through the TechReg and AgLearn systems, and connect directly to NRCS TSP state and national coordinators to resolve issues in realtime. 

Each workshop covered the requirements for becoming a TSP, the Farm Bill as it relates to NRCS and EQIP, EQIP funding and priority conservation practices, understanding NRCS Priority Resource Concerns, the influence of NRCS Local Working Groups on regional funding, TSP and EQIP payment rates, developing Conservation Activity Plans (CAPs), developing and implementing EQIP-funded conservation projects, designing NRCS job sheets, and navigating the TechReg and AgLearn systems. Workshop participants received a USB flash drive that included a toolkit of materials for registering for the TSP program and managing EQIP-funded projects.

The workshop approach was used for this project, based on feedback from foresters and natural resource professionals who had heard of the TSP program, but found the registration process challenging to navigate and who had difficulty in resolving technical questions or glitches in the registration system.

Outreach

NNRG focused the outreach campaign on increasing landowner awareness about cost-share opportunities and do-it-yourself resources. The campaign consisted of case studies and blog posts shared through email and social media with the 2,500 forest landowners in NNRG’s network. The “Funding Forest Stewardship” series included resources on forest management plans, increasing biodiversity and forest productivity, and fuels reduction.

Posts in the Funding Forest Stewardship series were scheduled for release in the months and weeks leading up to EQIP cutoff deadlines. NNRG provided an overview of EQIP, projects that could be funded, sample applications, links to lists of Technical Services Providers, instructions on how to apply, and encouraged producers to contact their local NRCS office to further vet application proposals.

In addition to outreach to the 2,500 forest producers in NNRG’s network, NNRG promoted EQIP at landowner workshops and through one-on-one consultations with landowners seeking resources to transition from passive to active management.

Direct Assistance

NNRG serves a range of forest producers including those who are new to woodland ownership or transitioning from passive management to actively stewarding their forestland. Many of these landowners reached out to NNRG to develop a CAP or for resources to complete EQIP conservation practices (where to find saplings, nest boxes, instruction on how to pre-commercial thin). As landowners transition to active stewardship, some become interested in undertaking forest health thinning operations. A number of forest producers’ interest in conservation-oriented harvest operations and desire to conduct operations that are consistent with Forest Stewardship Council® principles led them to directly seek harvest consulting services from NNRG. NNRG has responded to these requests by providing direct assistance in conducting harvest operations. While these revenue generating activities are not funded by EQIP, they are consistent with the goals of the program and commercially viable forest health thinning projects provide jobs to rural natural resource contractors and supplies the local wood products industry.

Outreach and Publications

NNRG conducted two workshops through this project. Each workshop covered the requirements for becoming a TSP, the Farm Bill as it relates to NRCS and EQIP, EQIP funding and priority conservation practices, understanding NRCS Priority Resource Concerns, the influence of NRCS Local Working Groups on regional funding, TSP and EQIP payment rates, developing Conservation Activity Plans (CAPs), developing and implementing EQIP-funded conservation projects, designing NRCS job sheets, and navigating the TechReg and AgLearn systems. Workshop participants received a USB flash drive that included a toolkit of materials for registering for the TSP program and managing EQIP-funded projects.

NNRG posted the presentations and materials for this workshop to the NNRG website - http://nnrg.org/resources/become-a-tsp/

NNRG conducted outreach to family forest owners from 2012 to 2015 through newsletters, social media, email, one-on-one communication.

Examples of general EQIP promotion include:

Landowner experiences with EQIP:

Funding Forest Stewardship series in spring 2015 for FY 2016 funding (updated in July 2015):

Outcomes and impacts:

Technical Service Provider Training

NNRG reached out to more than 100 natural resource professionals regarding the TSP program, EQIP, and how the two programs are resources to help existing clients and provide services to new clients. NNRG hosted two two-day workshops for natural resource professionals interested in the Technical Service Provider (TSP) program; 15 people attended the workshops and four professionals reported completing the TSP application process.

All workshop participants indicate they recognized how EQIP and the TSP program could provide valuable resources for the forest producers they serve. Participants indicated they were interested in the TSP program but wanted to learn more through a workshop before they invested time and resources into becoming TSPs. Many participants expressed concerns about the time intensive and administratively complex process to complete the TSP program. They deemed the TSP workshop informative and helpful to overcome application barriers.

Prior to 2011, there were 23 forestry professionals and businesses registered as TSPs in Oregon and Washington; with 7 TSPs predominately serving eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. In 2011, at least 12 forestry professionals became registered TSPs for NRCS. From 2012-2015, 7 forestry professionals became registered TSPs; including one participant from the NNRG 2014 TSP workshop. Currently there are 42 TSPs registered with NRCS to work on forestry projects in Oregon and Washington. This number is likely to increase to 45, once the application materials for three NNRG TSP workshop participants are reviewed.

EQIP Recruitment

From 2012 to 2015, NNRG promoted EQIP to more than 2,500 forest producers in Oregon and Washington. This outreach campaign, entitled “Funding Forest Stewardship”, focused on increasing landowner awareness about cost-share opportunities to assist them in developing management plans and implementing conservation practices. As a result of this outreach, more than 68 forest producers directly informed NNRG that they applied to NRCS for EQIP funds to develop management plans and conduct conservation on more than 1,800 acres.

Determining the number of forest producers that NNRG directly or indirectly influenced to apply for EQIP is difficult to discern. NRCS has indicated that they do not track the number of applications received, and the agency has confidentiality policies and shares very limited contract information in order to protect the privacy of landowners. While unable to measure NNRG's total impact on EQIP recruitment, NRCS staff have recognized NNRG as an important partner for promoting EQIP and other NRCS programs to forest producers in western Washington.

NNRG obtained information from NRCS about EQIP contracts awarded during the project period. From 2012-2014, NRCS in Washington State reports contracting 67 Conservation Activity Plans (CAPs; i.e. forest management plans) and contracting for 776 EQIP conservation practices for forest stand improvements. Per a Freedom of Information Act request to NRCS, the agency reports that in Oregon, it issued 890 EQIP contracts from 2012-2014. These Oregon EQIP contracts include all agricultural and forestry related practices. Agency staff indicate that they cannot provide further breakdown on the contracts due to privacy concerns and legal restrictions.

Thinning Assistance to Forest Producers

NNRG worked with 17 forest producers during this project and assisted them in conducting commercially viable selective harvests across 330 acres. These ecological thinning projects averaged 20 acres per producer and removed 30-40% of stand volume. Thinning treatments focused on the removal of suppressed and dying trees and were designed to reduce fuel loads, promote growth of remaining trees, and increase structural complexity. Each harvest employed, on average, 3.25 natural resource contractors (logging crew and truck driver) for 3-6 weeks, produced an average of 69,000 board feet of wood material, and grossed an average of $1,600 per acre ($820 per thousand board feet). In total, the ecological thinning projects contributed more than $500,000 to the regional economy. 

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

NNRG hosted two two-day workshops for natural resource professionals interested in the Technical Service Provider (TSP) program; 15 people attended the workshops and four professionals reported completing the TSP application process. All workshop participants indicated they recognized the valuable resources that EQIP and the TSP program could provide their clients.

NNRG promoted EQIP to more than 2,500 forest producers in Oregon and Washington. From 2012 to spring 2015, more than 68 forest producers directly informed NNRG that they applied to NRCS for EQIP funds to develop management plans and conduct conservation practices to enhance timber quality and overall productivity on more than 1,800 acres.

NNRG obtained information from NRCS about EQIP contracts awarded during the project period. From 2012-2014, NRCS in Washington State reports contracting 67 Conservation Activity Plans (CAPs; i.e. forest management plans) and contracting for 776 EQIP conservation practices for forest stand improvements. Per a Freedom of Information Act request to NRCS, the agency reports that in Oregon it issued 890 EQIP contracts from 2012-2014.

NNRG worked with 17 forest producers during this project and assisted them in conducting commercially viable selective harvests across 330 acres. These ecological thinning projects averaged 20 acres per producer and removed 30-40% of stand volume. Thinning treatments focused on the removal of suppressed and dying trees and were designed to reduce fuel loads, promote growth of remaining trees, and increase structural complexity. Each harvest employed, on average, 3.25 natural resource contractors (logging crew and truck driver) for 3-6 weeks, produced an average of 69,000 board feet of wood material, and grossed an average of $1,600 per acre ($820 per thousand board feet). In total, the ecological thinning projects contributed more than $500,000 to the regional economy.

NNRG worked with an informal group of potential TSPs, registered TSPs, forest producers who had used EQIP, and those who wished to access EQIP to gain insight and feedback on the NRCS programs. Their experiences and observations helped us in developing the workshop curriculum and materials to encourage landowners to apply for EQIP. One recommendation that applied to both groups was an emphasis on participating in the NRCS Local Working Group for their region of interest in order to encourage the allocation of EQIP funds to conservation practices for forest producers.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Through this project and previously funded SARE projects (EW10-016), NNRG staff broadened their network of forestry professionals able to serve family forest owners. In the past year, NNRG refered at least 4-5 forest landowners to forestry professionals who are also TSPs. NNRG strengthened connections to natural resource contractors who conduct harvest operations, provide tree planting crews, supply trees and understory plants, remove brush. NNRG is now more able to connect these service providers to landowner producers.

Promoting EQIP throughout this project has been a critical step to assist individual forest producers transitioning from passive landownership to active forest stewardship. By connecting landowners to cost-share resources and technical assistance, this project removed barriers to sustainable rural economic development. Project efforts engaged forest owners seeking conservation assistance to try EQIP, which in turn, engaged professional foresters and natural resource contractors to help these forest producers achieve conservation practices on the land. This nexus of information and action will need to be repeated landowner-by-landowner across the small woodlots of Oregon and Washington. The "Technical Service Provider Training to Improve Services for Family Forest Landowners" project has been a catalyst for developing a system to provide these forest producers with the information, skilled contractor and equipment resources, technical assistance, and economic incentives to conduct restoration and conservation activities on their forests.

While EQIP and the TSP program are effective mechanisms, this project helped NNRG identify ways to improve these resources, such that barriers to professionals becoming TSPs are reduced and landowners’ challenges in accessing EQIP can be overcome. Working in-depth on curriculum development and engaging with natural resource professionals revealed difficulties and inconsistences in the TSP registration process. Some glitches were breakpoints that NRCS staff were previously unaware of. In some instances, barriers to the TSP registration process were software bugs that prevented applicants from submitting materials, others were inconsistent and circular instructions to complete the submission of materials. Beyond the complications of the TSP registration process, would-be TSPs have concerns regarding funding allocations – namely consistency, regional variability – and incorporating the TSP/EQIP administrative requirements into typical forestry professional business practices. There is a learning curve and would-be TSPs need to be able to invest the time and resources to fold NRCS requirements into their management practices.

In promoting EQIP to landowners, NNRG received feedback from TSPs and those producers who had used EQIP. Their insights led NNRG to recognize the importance of participation in and promotion of NRCS Local Working Groups (LWG). At LWG’s participants discuss NRCS’s Priority Resource Concerns and annually, or semi-annually, recommend changes to programmatic funding allocations. TSPs need to understand what environmental resource concerns are priorities to NRCS and keep apprised of annual changes. These regional group meetings are highly influential in developing the recommendations for how each NRCS region will allocate EQIP funds for the pending fiscal year. In regions where there is little forestry professional or forest producer participation in the LWG there is often little money for forestry-related conservation practices-despite a strong need for assistance. Hence, it is important for forest producers and the forestry professionals that serve this population to participate in the LWG process. Other insights from landowners included the need to be persistent and not distracted by the frustrations of the EQIP and NRCS contracting processes. These landowners recognized that EQIP is not “free money”, that accessing cost-share resources takes work and they recommend fellow landowners be prepared to be an active manager of the application and project process. They also recognize that EQIP is one of few available resources to help them improve forest health, land productivity, and wood quality.

Through this project, NNRG put together the organization’s system for helping landowners and forestry professionals access EQIP and other resources for conservation practices. In encouraging landowners to connect to EQIP and other resources, NNRG announces application cutoff dates and changing deadlines, has a network to communicate deadlines, continues to generate content and examples of how EQIP can work for various landowners, has developed a list of resources for the "Funding Forest Stewardship" series that highlights EQIP among other resources, developed a timetable and mailing list of forestry professionals and landowners for notifications about Local Working Group meetings, and NNRG is a source of information for professionals who want to learn more about the TSP program and EQIP before committing to the application process.

Future Recommendations

At the onset of this project, NNRG recognized that a key component of keeping productive forest land in forestry and supporting the infrastructure of rural economics was connecting landowners to forestry professionals. While there are public databases and lists geared toward landowners that provide contact information for forestry professionals, there often needs to be a catalyst to engage a passive landowner in becoming an active steward. The cost-share resources that EQIP provides for developing a management plan and various conservation practices are such a catalyst of funding, new insights into forests, and information on how to one's achieve stewardship goals.

EQIP can be immensly beneficial on a forestowner-by-forestowner basis, and there is potential to serve a greater segment of the family forest owner population. The woodland owner/small forest producer population stewards more than 7.5 million acres in Oregon and Washington across 150,000 ownerships. National Woodland Owner Survey responses indiciate that family forest owners value privacy among many objectives for owning woodland. In Oregon and Washington, a minority of woodland owners engage with forest member associations, state and local conservation service providers, and extension services. To reach a larger share of the market of woodland producers, NRCS needs to better promote and better coordinate EQIP outreach efforts with local conservation districts, state and county agencies, forest landowner service groups and membership organizations, and TSPs. This remains an important focus of NNRG’s work and the organization will continue to pursue means to educate landowners and forestry professionals about EQIP and cost-share opportunities to improve forest health and productivity.

NNRG recommends that SARE continue to support projects that educate forestry professionals about the TSP program, EQIP, and regionally important grant programs available to forest producers. Increasing professional and landowner familiarity with programs and empowering professionals to provide assistance in accessing resources will contribute to improved forest health and productivity, increased wood quality for future harvests, and benefit rural and regional economies.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.