Consider a cluster of year-old pine trees, scrawny and less than 2 feet tall, next to some 20-year-old pines that stretch more than six stories into the air. Which of these represents a healthy, well-managed forest?
According to Matt Dowdy, a contract forester whose land management company is based in Albemarle and Louisa counties, the answer is both.
Dowdy, who said forestry is plagued by public misperceptions, has organized a two-day professional development program for Virginia middle and high school science teachers to gain exposure to forestry and land management.
“The forest actually is a crop. It provides many different objectives, many needs,” said Dowdy. “Most people look at a clear-cut and go, ‘That looks terrible and it’s going to look like that forever!’ So we’re trying to show how you go through a lifecycle of pine management, the way we do it for timber.”
Dowdy is working with the local chapter of the Society of American Foresters, Project Learning Tree, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Cooperative Exchange.
The program, called Teaching Trees, will be based out of the Department of Forestry’s Charlottesville office and is scheduled for Aug. 2-3. It will include trips to local forests and training in Project Learning Tree educational modules, which teachers can then use with their own students.
A national organization that provides environmental science curriculum supplements, Project Learning Tree correlates its materials with states’ testing programs, including Virginia’s Standards of Learning.
“We’ll basically treat the teachers as if they’re students, modeling the activities as they would be done with a classroom,” said Ellen Powell, conservation education coordinator for the forestry department. Powell will lead the Project Learning Tree activities.
In one activity, Powell explained, teachers will collect information on plant and animal diversity in two different pine stands to observe the impact of differences in soil type, light and moisture level. While science teachers might not be able to exactly replicate this type of activity with their classes, Powell said she hopes they will at least get students outside for more hands-on learning.
“We hope that [teachers] will use the schoolyard as a classroom, rather than just doing everything theoretically in the classroom and not seeing the actual natural environment,” Powell said. “We’re planning to model some of the activities that they could use outdoors [at school] with their own classes.”
The program will take teachers to a 2,000-acre forest in Albemarle owned by one of Dowdy’s clients and managed for timber, as well as Dowdy’s own property, which he uses for both timber and recreation.
Such pine and hardwood growths, Dowdy said, require patience and perspective. When responsibly harvested and maintained, he said, a property that produces lumber and raw material for paper goods can pay for itself in perpetuity.
“A good parallel to draw is that milk and eggs don’t come from the grocery store, they come from the farm. A lot of kids don’t realize that,” said Adam Downing, who will lead parts of the program as an agent of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the outgoing chairman of the local chapter of the Society of American Foresters.
“Toilet paper doesn’t magically appear in the grocery store, either. A lot of kids get misinformation about what a managed forest is, and that it’s OK to cut down trees there,” Downing said.
Dowdy noted that, because pines must grow for about 20 to 40 years before harvest, and hardwood trees 80 to 100 years, he is always conscious of how current land management decisions will impact coming generations.
He points to forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains that naturally replaced vacant orchards and pastures during the Great Depression and are now being harvested or managed as evidence of the resilient, cyclical nature of pine and hardwood trees.
“Really, [I] just want teachers educating students that we can manage the forest in a way that it’s not total devastation — in a smart, economical way,” Dowdy said.
Last year, the program was for one day only and involved only two teachers.
This year, eight teachers will attend the two-day program, coming from Albemarle, Louisa, Prince William, Richmond and Chesterfield counties. They will be eligible for continuing education credits, and they will leave with multiple Project Learning Tree modules to use with their students.
Dowdy said he hopes more of the teacher sessions can be held in the future.
In addition to Powell, Downing and Dowdy, activities will be led by other personnel from the forestry department and the Cooperative Extension, according to Downing. The program is funded in part by a grant to the forestry department from the Ballyshannon Fund.
“I love the forest. Trees are my life, I pretty much think about trees every day,” Dowdy said. “I want to show that we want to keep [forests] sustainable and keep them managed so future generations can enjoy them and get the products or enjoy the trees.”