Family Forest Blog

Growing Forest Conservation, Together: The 2019 National Leadership Conference

Cristina Zepeda-Almazan

March 25, 2021

This year, the American Tree Farm System welcomed over 250 Tree Farmers, inspectors, state committee leaders, policy supporters and partners to the three-day 2019 National Leadership Conference (NLC). It was an energetic event filled with conversations about working with greater numbers of family forest owners, taking advantage of opportunities to strengthen, grow and increase the impact of the Tree Farm program, and developing long-term strategies to remove barriers that prevent landowners from becoming active stewards of their land. 

2019 NLC-Tom Martin

Tom Martin, AFF CEO & President, speaking at the 2019 NLC.

With topics ranging from the ATFS database to learning how to engage a more diverse audience to an emerging leaders workshop focused on the next generation of sustainable forestry, the conference provided plenty of opportunities for participants to learn more about the Tree Farm system and its community.  

National Landowner Outreach Communities of Practice (COP)

For the first time ever, the Communities of Practice (COP) conference, which brings together conservation partners for a collective sharing of knowledge and learnings about landowner engagement, was hosted in conjunction with NLC. This year’s COP meeting brought together over 40 partners from conservation organizations, state agencies, extension forestry and put them alongside leaders from the ATFS community, to create opportunities for networking & information sharing, increasing partner and project success, and building core capacity.

Partners from around the nation shared results from various communications campaigns and compared what worked and what didn’t when it came to engaging landowners in their regions. Through conversation and workshops, attendees received feedback on their current work and found new ideas from the work of others.  Some favorites from COP were the professional development sessions. One of these sessions was led by Emily Huff, a professor at Michigan State University. Emily brought her expertise on project evaluation to the table and helped participants develop strategies on landowner engagement testing. Another professional development session was led by Peter Lane, from the Institute for Conservation Leadership, who shared strategies that participants could use to deepen the trust between other conservation partners, as well as with landowners.  

Workshops for Ideas and Solutions Exchange

NLC provides an opportunity to listen to feedback from attendees on ways that the Tree Farm program can continue to improve. One such opportunity was the Workshops for Ideas & Solutions Exchange (WISE) sessions. These workshops created spaces for participants to share, learn, and work together on discovering solutions to current issues, such as ways to technologies to show the impact that forest landowners are having. 

AFF Caroline Keubler 2019 NLC

AFF's Caroline Keubler leading a session at the 2019 National Leadership Conference.

Led by ATFS community members from around the nation, each session addressed various issues being experienced by Tree Farmers, such as the best way to show people the impact of the Tree Farm program or the best way to run a state committee. Based on the feedback that was provided by participants, AFF and ATFS are certain that the investments in innovative tools and technologies that are currently being developed will help to increase the capacities of state committees, inspectors and foresters to increase landowner engagement.  

White Oak Initiative

The conference also featured a panel on the White Oak Initiative, a coalition of organizations from various fields working to ensure the long-term sustainability of America’s white oak trees. The panel consisted of Jordy Jordahl, AFF’s Director of Midwestern Conservation, Jason Lupardus from the National Wild Turkey Federation, Elizabeth Wise of Sazerac, Alex Alvarez of Brown Forman and the Dendrifund, and Alex Richman sharing their “why?” – their reasons as to why the white oak species is so important to their work, as well as why they personally cherish white oak trees. 

This keystone species is not only an important member of many ecosystems, but it also touches many industries. For example, white oak is very popular in the timber industry and is also frequently used in creating the barrels used for whiskey and bourbon production. With such an enormous economic contribution, it is essential that through partnerships and collaborative conservation efforts, this species is protected for generations to come. And this coalition is dedicated to doing just that. 

Outstanding Leaders of the ATFS Community

The American Tree Farm System is made up of many remarkable Tree Farmers, foresters, inspectors, and volunteers. At NLC we recognized two individuals who went above and beyond in educating forest owners and supporting sustainable forestry practices. 

Brittany VanderWall of Michigan was awarded the 2019 National Leadership Award because of her ability to spark change and find solutions to protect the woodlands for the future. Vicki Christensen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was present at NLC and presented the award to her. "Brittany has an incredible energy and enthusiasm for ATFS that is contagious," said Tom Martin, CEO and President of AFF. "Brittany is at the vanguard of the next generation of resource professionals leading ATFS and helping to grow the program and help family forest owners increase their impact on wood, wildlife and clean water."


Tom Martin, AFF's CEO & President, with USDA Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen presenting the 2019 National Leadership Award to Brittany VanderWall.

Bill Chaney of Arkansas was recognized as the 2019 National Outstanding Inspector of the Year. Chosen from a pool of 2,500 inspectors nationwide, Bill was chosen because of his exceptional on-the-ground work with family forest owners and his commitment to the values of the American Tree Farm. “He has an incredible passion for serving his community and the Tree Farmers of Arkansas; his work recruiting, mentoring and certifying landowners is making a true impact on the sustainability of our forests and the resources – wildlife, clean water, wood – that they provide,” said Tom Martin, President and CEO of AFF.  That passion resulted in Bill certifying nearly 50 new Tree Farmers to the program in 2018. 

2019 NLC-Bill Chaney

Bill Chaney receiving the National Outstanding Inspector of the Year award at the 2019 National Leadership Conference.

Uniting the Next Generation of Forestry

To ensure that future generations can enjoy forests and the benefits that they provide, it is essential to work hand-in-hand with future forestry leaders. By working together with the next generation of foresters and volunteers, we can develop long-term solutions that meet the needs of a changing population of landowners. 

The Emerging Leaders workshop created a space for next generation forestry professionals from around the country to network and learn more about the work of their peers. This group encouraged young leaders to continue working on ways to diversify the forestry field and to collaborate and converse on what strategies are and aren’t working.

Sessions such as this one are important as we work to not only increase the interest in the Tree Farm program, but also the interest in forestry amongst younger generations. “I think it's beyond just the scope of Tree Farm, but finding ways that we can empower young people to find the value in owning a forest and making it better,” said Brittany VanderWall, recipient of the 2019 ATFS National Leadership Award. Many of the session participants are currently forestry professionals in their respective states, whether that be in Idaho or in Arkansas. These enthusiastic and driven individuals will lead Tree Farm and the forestry field into the future. 

Removing Barriers to Engage More Landowners 

As we seek to grow forest stewardship together, the outreach, education, and recognition the Tree Famer program offers to landowners in each state is vital. We’re working with volunteers and partners to remove barriers that commonly prevent landowners from participating in active stewardship. To do this, AFF is investing in new innovations and resources to help streamline landowner enrollment, maximize forester time, and create more value for landowners and foresters. 

We are working with partners to develop and implement new tools that have decreased the amount of time it takes to certify landowners and that have increased the number of family forest owners and acres enrolled in the ATFS program. Some of these tools include Landscape Management PlansWoodsCamp, and the Certification App.  

These new approaches are already proving successful:  we’re reaching more landowners more quickly at a fraction of the cost, growing certification and sustainable forest management. In collaboration with our partners, we are rapidly expanding the use of these tools to empower significantly greater numbers of family forest owners to actively manage their land.

AFF-Certification Growth Pilot-Results

AFF staff and NLC attendees reflected on this year’s event and all that we are trying to accomplish, test, and collaborate with the ATFS community. AFF and ATFS are dedicated to working with members of the Tree Farm program to continue to increase the impact of the Tree Farm program across the nation. 

We are excited to continue to grow forest conservation together by strengthening, growing and increasing the impact of the ATFS program in 2019. AFF is working with committee leaders, partners, and foresters to engage more family forest owners actively caring for their woodlands to ensure clean water, wildlife habitat, and sustainable wood supplies. To stay up to date on AFF's projects, events, and more, sign up for one of our newsletters! 

Cristina Zepeda-Almazan

March 25, 2021

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