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Who can be a woodland steward?

Extension Forestry encourages woodland stewardship diversity in Minnesota.

One of Extension Forestry's core audiences is family woodland owners. The estimated 102,000 family woodland owners in Minnesota control over 5 million acres.

In large part, the people who own these woodlands have benefited from federal agriculture policy and land settlement history in the United States. To learn more about Minnesota’s forest land history check out this MN Women’s Woodland Network article.

While private forestland in Minnesota is diverse in terms of the composition and characteristics of the forest, the demographics of woodland stewards are not. Extension just published a report detailing a project we conducted with these objectives:

  1. to interview Minnesota residents that have been historically excluded from owning forestland within the State to understand their motivations and barriers to stewarding, purchasing, owning, and managing land, and
  2. to build Extension’s repertoire of woodland steward resources that are more culturally relevant.

Who owns the land?

Current estimates are that less than 0.001% of Minnesota forest land is owned by minorities. Indigenous tribal sovereign nations are generally well organized and often have their own forestry and natural resource professionals to manage their forests. Extension Forestry is working to develop and maintain meaningful trusting relationships with diverse groups traditionally left out of woodland ownership.

We got a small UMN Institute on the Environment (IonE) grant to interview diverse audience members with the goal of understanding barriers to forestland stewardship in Minnesota. Our focus on woodland stewardship (caring for woods), not ownership, openly acknowledges the complex and fraught history of land ownership in Minnesota. 

Diversity and inclusion are very hard work

There were very few folks that we were able to identify as diverse, interested in woodland stewardship, and willing to talk to us. The context of the world around us while doing this project also may have affected our ability to connect with individuals who would have been willing to participate in our project. Everyone was living through a major global pandemic, there was national and local civil unrest, and massive riots rocked Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our report outlines a dishearteningly long list of context considerations. 

We sought individuals who were willing to participate in one-on-one interviews. We received 46 responses from our traditional Extension forestry communications, personal contacts of team members, and advertisements in online and printed media targeting minority communities. Only nine people fit within the parameters of historically excluded people, and only four women completed an interview. These numbers fit with similar experiences of our colleagues across the country.

Listening to these few participants was revealing

What we heard:

What does woodland stewardship mean to you?

  • You don’t have to be in the woods to be a woodland steward.
  • Stewardship is an ethic, not a methodology.
  • Stewardship is protection and balance.

Why are you interested in woodland stewardship? 

  • Spirituality and connection matter.

Are there barriers that might prevent you from stewarding a woodland?

  • The need for more culturally-relevant information, as well as information about environmental justice and how to hold white privilege.
  • Accessibility matters for things like equipment, money, proximity, expertise, and information on where to start.
  • Advice on transition planning outside of the family to another woodland steward.

Reflections and next steps

Extension forestry is actively trying to incorporate this information into our programs and we are sharing these results with groups like the MN Women’s Woodland Network and MN Forestry Association.

Several of the themes we uncovered seem very similar to concerns and stated needs of the fastest-growing segment of family woodland owners and managers: women. We need to develop stronger relationships among minority groups and communities. Including thinking more broadly and creatively about how to reach minority groups through things like faith-based organizations and leaders in minority communities. We need to learn more about what non-traditional forest stewards do, want and need in order to be able to serve them better.

To learn more about this project, including the methodology, review the full report here.

Getting started with woodland stewardship is a compilation of resources to address some of the needs identified in these interviews.

Author: Angela Gupta, UMN Extension forester, agupta@umn.edu

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