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 Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “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 with sessions on sustainable forestry, logging safety, and harvest planning and best management practices, and then maintain their status by earning 12 continuing education credits every three years.

The SHARP Logger Program modified its three-module core training in response to the pandemic. The first session, in March 2020, was in person, the second online, and the third (pictured) was held in person in September 2020 according to recommended protocols. Photo by Karen Snape, Virginia Tech.

“We’ve had some online training available for several years, but with the increased risks of in-person gathering, 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 we’ve expanded our offerings when it comes to 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, meaning that they are paid based on what they produce,” Barrett said. “When they have to take a day off for training, that can impact them significantly.”

While some trainings cannot be replicated online, Snape notes that participants have adjusted surprisingly well to virtual training. “I’ve definitely seen an increase in their comfort level during the pandemic. 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, a 1977 Virginia Tech biology alumna and a Master Naturalist in the Fairfax County chapter, has been helping the organization adjust to the challenges of the recent year.

“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. “Our training team and board and sponsors had to pull together to transition to a virtual classroom for the 12-week course, and we had to 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, 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 in their 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. “A state park employee recently told me that she was very appreciative that Master Naturalists were coming in to maintain a butterfly garden that is an attraction for the park.”

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 forest landowners so that they can make good decisions about their forestland,” explained Extension Associate Jennifer Gagnon, program coordinator. “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,” she said. “Peer-to-peer education is powerful, and it is difficult to replicate that online, so we had to take a step back and rethink how to keep landowners engaged.”

The Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program was able to offer its popular Fall Forestry and Wildlife Field Tours in person in 2020 by incorporating several COVID-19 mitigation protocols. Photo by Jennifer Gagnon, Virginia Tech.

One effort that has seen a positive change is Preparing for Generation NEXT, a workshop aimed at helping forest 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 have found that the format has made it easier for generations of families to participate together.”

Another success was a video series called “Fifteen Minutes in the Forest,” where experts from Virginia Tech and other institutions 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.”

– David Fleming