Wooded properties are common in the Highlands, but I bet many people don’t know a lot about what’s growing on their land or how to care for it. To be fair, we don’t have many opportunities to learn, and ecological blind spots are common. 

Shane Stevens, aCCE regional director, points out the effects of beech bark disease during Master Forest Owner training. (Photo provided)
Shane Stevens, a CCE regional director, points out the effects of beech bark disease during Master Forest Owner training. (Photo provided)

When I moved to a forested site 14 years ago, after living for decades in cities, I couldn’t identify more than a few grasses and flowers. Wanting to be a responsible steward, I became a Master Gardener volunteer through Cornell Cooperative Extension Putnam County. In 2021, I also completed CCE’s Master Forest Owner training. 

The point of the MFO program is for volunteers to visit woodland owners and point them to resources to meet whatever goals they have for the land, says Shane Stevens, the CCE regional director for our area.

It started in 1991 because Cornell University recognized that private landowners have a huge impact on the environment. Of the 20 million acres of forest in New York state, 75 percent is privately owned. “The decisions made about those acres are key to sustaining biodiversity and keeping forests healthy and resilient to natural disasters and pests,” Stevens says.

There are 140 Master Forest Owner volunteers across the state, and they have joined for many reasons. Angela Attia, who lives in Philipstown, completed the training in 2022. “I was interested in gardening and started learning about native plants,” she says. “Then I wanted to understand how to better support the forest on our land. Through volunteering, I can disseminate the information and help others.”

Greg Clarke, who lives near Pawling and has been a volunteer for 15 years, says that peer-to-peer learning is a key to the program’s success. “When you go out into the field, there’s credibility in meeting with someone who is dealing with the same challenges.” 

Clarke primarily visits sites in Dutchess County, where woodland owners tend to have larger tracts of land than people do in Putnam and logging is a source of income. 

Janis Butler, who has been a volunteer since 2018 and lives in Mahopac, said that in her experience, people are concerned about making their properties beneficial for wildlife and habitat. She also came to the program from a personal interest in managing her forest. “There are global consequences to the choices we make about our lands,” she says, adding that she’s developed a greater appreciation through her site visits for the incredible amount of beautiful property in our area. 

All agree, and I concur, that invasive-species management is the topic that every landowner brings up during visits. These are tough plants and pests to deal with and they are impacting forest health in every way. Deer are another big part of the picture. Their presence determines what grows and if trees can regenerate. Unless you know what is missing in a forest ecosystem, you might not even know what role it plays. 

For anyone interested in becoming a Master Forest Owner volunteer, the application deadline for the next training is March 19. See blogs.cornell.edu. It includes topics such as understanding what makes a healthy woodland, earning income from trees through timber harvesting or food production, and how to access state and regional resources. The training can be completed online. 

Volunteers can also attend field training and webinars and workshops that cover the latest research on tree diseases, invasive species and the safe use of chain saws, for example. I get a steady stream of emails from CCE. 

To request a site visit from a MFO volunteer, visit blogs.cornell.edu/ccemfo.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Doan, who resides in Philipstown, has been writing for The Current since 2013. She edits the weekly calendar and writes the gardening column. Location: Philipstown. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Gardening, environment

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