Profiles in Conservation

Recipe for success:
Collaborative duo creates win-win solution for birds, forests

Imagine a collaboration that brings together unlikely cooperators to support migratory bird populations while fostering effective forest management on privately owned lands. Add a few “secret” ingredients, shake it up, and watch what happens.

By Glenn Rosenholm

Welcome, friends, to “Foresters for the Birds”—an elegant and highly successful initiative that is being replicated in State after State, and is under consideration for adoption at the national level.

Like many fruitful initiatives, it started out with examining problems and facts. Here’s how the scenario played out.

In 2006, after seeing years of steady declines in migratory bird populations in Vermont—a State that is about 84 percent forested and where the majority of forest land is privately owned—Audubon Vermont decided to enlist landowners in the effort to improve breeding bird habitat. Bird experts noted that many landowners were unaware of the problem back then and yet had an interest in helping birds, but they didn’t have the tools to do so.

“Here we have some of the highest diversity of breeding birds in the country,” said Audubon Vermont Conservation and Policy Director Jim Shallow. “People are unaware of the bird diversity that we have in our forested landscape, and most of them are migratory birds that are here only during the breeding season.”

Given the importance of Vermont’s forests as breeding habitats to so many species of birds, his organization set out to address some of the major threats to forest bird populations. These threats include climate change, acidification, urbanization, and the lack of high-quality breeding habitat, as well as landowners being unaware of the role their forest lands have in protecting birds.

Meanwhile, down the road and through the trees, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation faced its own challenge of getting forest landowners to make any cuts to their trees.

These two seemingly unconnected concerns, bird habitat and forestry, would eventually cross paths.

Audubon Vermont started reaching out to family forest owners, landowner groups, tree farm associations, and land trusts to communicate the importance of their lands in protecting birds. Many of these landowners had an interest in protecting birds, but not a lot of knowledge. Audubon Vermont began holding workshops for landowners and sharing information they needed to support bird populations.

They also offered habitat assessments for private forest landowners. Audubon brought biologists on board through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation grant to provide outreach for landowners and to do the habitat assessments.

“People got a lot out of the assessments,” Shallow said, pleased with the results.

Right Message, Right Audience

The first workshop was held in Waitsfield. One participant in the back of the class was Mike Snyder, the soon-to-be Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Back then, he worked as the Chittenden County forester for the same department.

Following the presentation, Snyder approached Shallow and said he did a superb job with his talk, adding that he wanted to learn more about birds. It was great that Audubon was talking about forestry practices with birds in mind, he added. His clients were asking for this information. There was just one problem: Audubon’s material was too basic for foresters to use.

“You’re amazing with birds,” Snyder said to Shallow. “But you have no place talking about forest management.”

“Jim put up a slide at the end of the talk,” added Snyder. “The guidance he put up on his slide was very general. I went up to him after his talk and told him his talk was geared toward landowners. I told him that he might want to think more about that last slide about forest management.”

Shallow said they needed to discuss which forestry practices would accomplish breeding habitat conditions. Their subsequent conversations led to collaboration with foresters to work towards these goals.

“The foresters brought their knowledge and expertise to the table to help us develop the tools to make it work,” said Shallow. “That was the whole genius about ‘Foresters for the Birds.’”

“It’s about managing for timber with songbirds in mind,” Snyder agreed. 

“They said, ‘We’re not biologists, but we do know how to manage forestlands. Let’s go after a State and Private Forestry 3-year grant to pull this together,’” added Shallow.

The collaborators applied for and eventually received a U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry grant for $90,600 for their initiative; the State of Vermont matched that amount with $91,321. The grant recipients completed the multiyear project in 2011.

“The unique thing about it was that it was an equal partnership,” added Shallow. “We were going to take our time doing this. Year 1 was a couple of workshops where we brought foresters out to tell them bird species we were interested in and what type of forest and forest structure they preferred. We then asked them what they would do as foresters to maintain or promote the conditions the birds needed.”

Applying Bird Research

“Breeding bird survey data showed us the bird diversity and population declines in Vermont,” said Shallow. “We looked at what the bird science was saying about impacts to birds, management considerations, and other factors, so that we could share that information with foresters.”

“When we started doing Foresters for the Birds, we asked ourselves ‘Did we really need to do more research?’ We said, ‘no,’” he added. “We see those peer reviewed journals. Little of that information gets in the hands of landowners or foresters. We decided we’re going to take the time to look at that great research out there and put it in a form that individual landowners can use,” he added.

“It’s about the science of birds and their habitats coming together with the art and science of silviculture,” added Snyder. “It’s about well-established science and people coming together for an ongoing dialogue about their shared interest. It’s science with equal doses of experience.”

It goes to the heart of Audubon’s core values, added Shallow. We believe that if people have the right information, they’ll make the right decisions. Oftentimes I say that our biologists at Audubon are really educators for landowners and foresters.”

“The foresters said we’re giving them information in a way that they can apply it,” added Shallow.

“We respect what people bring to the table. Foresters have years of experience managing forests. In the past that wasn’t always fully acknowledged. We said, ‘You guys have so much practical experience, how can we learn from you?’ And they asked us what they could learn from Audubon.”

Envisioning Success

Shallow outlined their goals. “We envisioned success by having this toolkit developed, having trained as many foresters as we could (40+), having landowners engaged, and having habitat assessments done on their properties—all told about 50,000 acres. We wanted to reinforce the information with the foresters in the field. We did surveys to see if people were more aware of birds. They were all measures of success.”

“We had that first workshop, and the foresters provided their input,” added Shallow. “Over the winter we developed a handful of practices that served us to get started.”

The first publication they developed was a guide of 12 forest birds that inhabit New England. It discussed the steps needed to improve some of their most common habitat conditions.

“So we developed that,” added Shallow. “At the next round of workshops, about 80 percent of the foresters who came to the first workshop came to the one the next year. They critiqued the heck out of our publication.”

Shallow said a lack of awareness and an absence of specific tools that foresters could use to improve the habitat were two of their concerns.

“We wanted to get the bird science to the foresters so that they could do the silvicultural work they’re most comfortable doing,” he added.

“We tested our guidelines, what worked and what didn’t work. We did another couple workshops and redid the materials,” said Shallow. “Then we came up with the final draft, the Foresters for the Birds Toolkit. It talked about how you address habitat, the things you look for, the structure of the forest, forest types, et cetera.”

“Unlike any other bird guide out there, this toolkit provided silvicultural practices to help landowners improve their forests to maintain or improve their habitat for bird populations,” he said.

Shallow said the other piece of the toolkit was the guide to silvicultural practices, including six kinds of silvicultural treatments people could use to improve their bird habitats. A forester could use these guidelines to manage their forestland for birds.

The toolkit is posted on the Audubon Vermont Web site.

“Now National Audubon is redoing their strategic plan, recognizing that this approach could be replicated throughout the Atlantic Flyway,” Shallow said.

“The flying route for migratory birds from the winter grounds to the breeding grounds is mostly forested,” he added. “We asked how we could take our program and replicate it elsewhere—say, in South Carolina. You can replicate the steps, but the specifics might be different.”

Shallow said their goal at Audubon Vermont is a huge habitat made up of working lands, and they are trying to engage landowners to address those needs of those birds.

Shallow ultimately credited two factors for the success of the Foresters for the Birds program.

“From the beginning, making this an equal partnership and having us learn from each other, that dialogue was open and intentional for us wanting to learn from each other and sharing that with the broader community. There was mutual respect. The sum of the parts was greater because of that. Also, not rushing was very helpful. That extra time allowed us to be inclusive, and our workshop participants felt liked they owned this issue. They felt like they helped create that material,” he said.

“That was the secret sauce right there.”

For more information about Foresters for the Birds, visit Vermont Audubon’s Web site and explore these documents:

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