Journal of the NACAA
Volume 12, Issue 1 - June, 2019
Extreme Weather Events and Risk Management Options for Family Forests
- Henderson, J., Professor and Head, Coastal Research & Extension Center Mississippi State University
Gordon, J. , Assistant Professor, University of Georgia
Climate change education is a growing part of the Extension agent’s responsibilities. Due to the politicization of the topic, clients may be unresponsive to educational efforts; however, few question the consequences of extreme weather events. This article describes a short course that introduces forest landowners and professionals to climate change issues and adaptations vis-à-vis the less controversial theme of using sustainable management to minimize impacts of extreme weather events. We discuss program objectives and topics and present program evaluation data. The article concludes with recommendations for Extension personnel who wish to integrate climate change into their programming.
Climate change can be difficult for Extension professionals to address given the politicization of anthropocentric causes and the risk of alienating clientele. One approach is to focus on extreme weather, a corollary of climate change, which can be addressed within the context of sustainable forestry. It behooves Extension professionals to address climate change (Wright Morton et al., 2016); however, unclear terminology, overly scientific jargon, or emotion-laden statements can lead to distrust and confusion among clientele. Global warming, the ozone effect, and climate change are terms that have been politicized and misused, while topics such as human-driven causes (e.g., fossil fuel usage) and long-term trends can lead to antipathy towards the intended message of risk reduction.
A less controversial approach is to focus on extreme weather, a corollary of climate change, which can be addressed within the context of sustainable forestry. To our knowledge, a program addressing risk mitigation and consequences of extreme weather is unique in forestry educational outreach. This is somewhat surprising given that forest landowner education easily addresses climate change considerations using sustainable forestry as a vehicle for information delivery. After all, forest landowner education should already be applying sustainability concepts (e.g., best management practices, streamside management zones, planning, conservation – see treefarmsystem.org for more examples) as the overriding management model.
To this end, Mississippi State University Extension Forestry developed a short course titled Extreme Weather Events and Risk Management Options for Family Forests. This brief article describes how climate change education can be approached indirectly and effectively by de-emphasizing controversial climate change rhetoric while highlighting practical adaptations designed to minimize extreme weather impacts (Morris et al., 2014).
The course was conducted multiple times at ten locations throughout Mississippi from 2014 to early 2016 with a total of 337 participants. The overall objective of the program was to introduce participants to sustainable forest management practices to mitigate the impacts of increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The program did not seek to change participants’ attitudes about climate change.
The six hour short course did not require a registration fee, recruiting occurred through mail and email contact, and a meal was provided as part of the event. Participants received a 255-page study guide. Content covered forest management techniques and subjects familiar to family forest owners, but within the context of mitigating effects caused by extreme weather events (Morris et al., 2014). For example, to achieve our program objective, a traditional topic such as pine stand thinning was addressed from the perspective that the activity will become even more important with increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather. Specifically, the curriculum and associated study guide included sections on three traditional forestry topics:
- All-aged management
- Timber casualty loss
- Species selection
In addition, new lectures and associated publications were developed:
- Introduction to timber insurance (Henderson and Garnett, 2015)
- Timber salvage (Self, 2015)
- Thinning for forest health (Willis et al., 2015)
- Preparing for the future (weather and climate trends)
These publications can be found at http://extension.msstate.edu/publications. Following presentations on technical practices, the program concluded with a discussion about climate and weather trends, with an emphasis on the effects of El Niño/La Niña on Mississippi. Specialists, including a climate change researcher, provided face-to-face instruction.
Results of Participant Evaluations
A post-session evaluation was conducted at the conclusion of each of the ten programs to measure attitudes and intended behaviors as a result of attending the course. For brevity, and because with this article we seek to document the success of a new program, we limit our results to participants’ perceptions of program usefulness, self-reported changes in knowledge, and attitudes toward using forestry management techniques to mitigate extreme weather impacts.
Sixty percent of participants completed evaluations. These clients reported owning or managing 1.8 million acres of forestland. Over 98% of participants found the course to be very or somewhat useful overall, with over 68% indicating it was very useful (Figure 1). In particular, “Preparing for the future” was a highly rated topic.
Figure 1. Course participants’ perceptions of program usefulness. Responses recorded as neutral and not applicable were excluded.
Participants reported an increase in knowledge with the highest number of respondents indicating their knowledge changed a lot regarding “salvaging storm-damaged timber” (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Course participants’ self-reported change in knowledge.
Attitudinal questions addressed perceptions about extreme weather, self-efficacy relative to management techniques, and the benefits of sustainable forest management as extreme weather adaptation (Figure 3). Nested within this set of questions was a general question asking about intended behavior change. Over 85% of participants felt more prepared than before the course to mitigate timber casualty loss, and 88% planned to employ some techniques discussed in class. Notably, around 40% did not agree that extreme weather was worsening.
Figure 3. Attitudes towards extreme weather and perceived effects of education. A five-point Likert scale was used. "Strongly disagree" and "somewhat disagree" were combined to "disagree"; "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree" were combined to "agree".
Forest management is a relatively easy topic from which to introduce climate change issues because scientific, sustainable forest management fundamentally agrees with climate change adaptation strategies. Practices such as pine stand thinning and Best Management Practices are beneficial to forests, whether one considers climate change or not. The topic of extreme weather provides an opportunity to introduce some climate change science and narrative into clients’ forest management toolboxes. The pilot program described in this article provided several lessons for future educational activities.
Although omitting politicized terminology is important, references to some climate change concepts and terms should not be completely ignored in order to thoroughly and ethically address adaptive forest management in the era of climate change. Excessive omission of relevant terms blurs the larger picture – that forest management impacts and is impacted by climate change. A landowner needs assessment conducted prior to programming efforts will help determine existing knowledge and attitudes to be considered when designing the program curriculum. Various qualitative techniques can be employed if a quantitative survey is impractical (e.g., Caravella, 2006; Comito et al., 2018; Etling, 1995; Vanderford et al., 2014).
Evaluations were favorable for all topics in this course, including the climate trends section which included long term climate model predictions. Although many participants continued to doubt the existence of worsening extreme weather events, the majority believed their forestry related actions can make a difference in effective storm recovery. Evaluation results suggest an opportunity to provide more in-depth climate change information in future programming; however, responses also highlight the discrepancy between willingness to learn about climate change and acceptance of predictive models. Future evaluation, and research, may help to reconcile this inconsistency.
Finally, evaluations suggest the transferability of this extension model to other states and commodity groups because sustainable land management is applicable to all geographic regions. However, as is frequently the case with extension programming, curricula should be adapted to reflect the physical and cultural circumstances of each state. For example, western states might incorporate information regarding the influences of public land management. Regardless of such modifications, employing extreme weather as a contextual backdrop is a good approach to initiate discussion and convey information about climate change to forest landowners.
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Comito, J., Haub, B. C., and Licht, M. (2018). Rapid needs assessment and response technique. Journal of Extension, 56(2) Article 2TOT1. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/2018april/tt1.php
Etling, J. (1995). Needs assessment: A handbook. Journal of Extension, 33(1) Article 1TOT1. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/1995february/tt1.php
Henderson J. E., and Garnett, L. (2015). Risk management options for family forests: timber insurance, Publication 2911. Mississippi State University Extension. Retrieved from http://www.extension.msstate.edu
Morris, H. L. C., Megalos, M. A., Vuola, A. J., Adams, D. C., and Monroe, M. C. (2014). Cooperative Extension and climate change: Successful program delivery. Journal of Extension, 52(2) Article 2COM3. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2014april/comm3.php
Self, B. (2015). Disaster preparedness: Tree removal and timber-recovery. Information Sheet 1708. Mississippi State University Extension. Retrieved from http://www.extension.msstate.edu
Vanderford, E. F., Gordon, J. S., Londo, A. J., and Munn, I. A. (2014). Using focus groups to assess educational programming needs in forestry. Journal of Extension, 52(3) Article 3FEA9. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/2014june/a9.php
Willis, J. L., Henderson, J. E., & Garnett, L. (2015). Thinning to mitigate extreme-weather risks. Information Sheet 2021. Mississippi State University Extension. Retrieved from http://www.extension.msstate.edu
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