June 2007

On a perfect June evening, I had the privilege of joining the third and final cohort of the Silvicultural Application of Minnesota’s Ecological Classification Systems course for their graduation celebration. ECS Field WorkFunded through VFVC with a grant to the Sustainable Forest Education Cooperative (SFEC), the course has been ably developed and led by University of Minnesota Education Specialist Louise Levy. Louise has pulled together a uniquely qualified team of leading professionals to design and deliver the course, including Aitkin County Assistant Land Commissioner Beth Jacqmain, John Almendinger, Alaina Berger and Dan Hanson from the DNR, UPM Forester Cheryl Adams and Julie Ernst from UMD. Along with curriculum development efforts at Itasca and Vermillion community colleges, the course is part of a broader VFVC objective to establish ecologically-based forest management as the norm in Minnesota.

In the picnic shelter at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, over celebratory steaks and beer, Louise handed out handsomely bound certificates to the 20 or so natural resource professionals including folks from the DNR, St. Louis County, BIA, and three college professors. Every graduate also received a pocket-sized compass mounted in a beautifully carved wooden bob, engraved with the words of Francis Scott Bacon, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

Designed to facilitate the application of John Almendinger’s native plant community classification system to silviculture and stewardship planning, the course demands an impressive command of plants. Students were given tough assignments and then grilled. One test involved identifying 58 plant specimens – without flowers. ICC Forestry Instructor Harry Hutchins spoke up to say it was very helpful to have learned how to identify plants by other structures, because flowers are so temporal and fleeting. John Kotar, University of WI Professor and author of Approaches to Ecologically Based Forest Management on Private Lands was movingly eloquent about the satisfaction of knowing plants and of how unsettling it is for him to experience “blank spots” of knowledge about plants when he’s in the woods. He likes to know what things are and says his approach is to learn two new plants a day. “You do the math,” he said with satisfaction, “Just imagine how many plants you can learn in a year or ten years.”

I overheard one student say that the interagency composition of the group enriched her learning experience. “We need a whole day for arguing”, someone joked.

Louise thinks ecological classification systems offer a conceptual framework for what people already know intuitively about the woods and natural processes. One student said he liked the tool because it helps better inform decisions, but doesn’t dictate them.

This ECS course, along with curriculum developed at Itasca Community College and Vermillion Community college, are outcomes of an effort to improve the business success and best practices of the people who manage and harvest the forest. With certificates in the hands of the 20 graduates of the final training group, the work plan of this 2004 Blandin Foundation grant to the SFEC is completed.

In the coming months, Louise and I will be working with our ICC and VCC colleagues, evaluators and some of you among our blog readers to think about next steps for all three of these efforts. We will use this space to share the results of the course evaluation Louise has conducted, and of the stories we will collect about how participants turn their learning into practice, and with what result. For now, I invite you to submit your comments and read a publication we put out in 2006, From Theory to Practice: Ecological Classification System Principles provide a holistic approach to forest management


So What? All of us working to make a positive difference in the world ask ourselves that question. “So What?” “Are our efforts on target?” “What lessons can we learn?” “What next?” “How can we do better?”

After four years and nearly $8 million in investments , these questions are increasingly front and center for those of us working on Blandin Foundation’s VFVC Initiative.

In service to the Initiative’s objectives and to the Foundation’s commitment to sharing our learning, we are launching this new VFVC Blog. We hope this tool will help us all advance our shared commitment to promoting the connections between a healthy forest-based economy, healthy forest ecosystems and healthy communities.

One on-going focus of the Initiative is to encourage sustainable forestry, including by increasing the amount of forested land being managed under third-party certification programs.

As part of this work, the Foundation has provided financial and operational support to six northern Minnesota counties – Becker, Beltrami, Carlton, Clearwater, Crow Wing and Koochiching – to cooperatively undertake the process of preparing themselves for certification.

County Representatives, 2006
Photo above: County representatives participating in a work session, March, 2006.

Recently, we commissioned an evaluation of this work to date. We are pleased to share the results with you here in the form of an Executive Summary or the Full Report.

One of the study’s key findings is that the participating county land commissioners believe that “certification is the present and future of forest management.” Vital Forests/Vital Communities is eager to continue to be a resource for county and other certification efforts in our state, and we welcome your input as we figure out the best opportunities to do so.

As we at Blandin contemplate the “So What?” question and deliberate on what to do next, we invite your comments and feedback.