Forestry as a Universal Language

Kevin Zobrist and visiting foresters
Kevin Zobrist (center) and a group of Extension agents visiting from Afghanistan use an increment borer to core a large Douglas-fir. Photo: WSU/DNR.

This year has reminded us that there is much strife in the world. Forestry has had its own share of unrest over the past fifty years, and there are still many issues to resolve. But forests and forestry can also evoke shared values that transcend geographic, political, and social divisions. This past fall I was privileged to experience this firsthand with two opportunities to spend time with my counterparts from other parts of the world.

The first opportunity was an international conference for foresters who work with small forest owners. I met other Extension and outreach foresters like me from the United States and across the globe. I spent time with folks from Germany, Denmark, Japan, Latvia, Estonia, Nepal, Indonesia, Sweden, Finland, and elsewhere. We represented diverse forest types, social norms, and market systems (such as the Baltic states where managing forests in a free market system is still a new idea).

What astonished me though, as I spent time with my international colleagues, was realizing that forest owners largely have the same values and face the same issues around the world. Issues and concerns around forest health, habitat loss, fire, invasive species, etc., are universal. Similarly, I have much in common with my counterparts as all of us try to assist all of you with those issues. The conference was a rich time of sharing all sorts of ideas and strategies for how to best engage and educate a broadly dispersed population and help more forest owners get the most out of their property. I came home with pages full of notes about new ideas and initiatives. Some of those ideas I am already putting into practice, with others pending. Hopefully through this exchange of ideas we all will benefit from the collective wisdom and experience of the international forestry community.

The second opportunity I had was when a group of Extension agents from Afghanistan came to visit Washington state. It was a group of about a dozen or so people, both men and women, who were in charge of developing Extension programs in different regions of the country. The challenges they face are hard to imagine. Many had no form of transportation to reach landowners. They lacked resources like books, and even if they did have them, many of their clientele cannot read. Computer technology and online education are not options for them. One person even recounted being kidnapped by the Taliban while doing a site visit and tribal elders had to intercede to free him. And yet they continue to press on with dedication, courage, and a passion for education and helping people. And they came to the U.S. seeking new ideas.

Many in the group were particularly interested in forestry, which is why they came to my office on their tour of Washington state. I had a structured presentation all ready, but we never got to it. They immediately had questions and we started a very spirited discussion—I don’t know how the translator kept up with us. They asked how I help landowners navigate overlapping regulations, how I keep people from over-harvesting on steep slopes and other sensitive areas, how I reconcile different social philosophies of how forests should be managed, and how I engage a diverse and broadly dispersed population. We were so different, them and me—we looked different, dressed different, and talked different. Their customs were also much different, but we were happy to take a break and provide rooms so that the men and women could separate for their afternoon prayer time. But our forest stewardship issues were exactly the same, and we immediately connected.

They wanted to go outside and see some of our native trees. We looked at some red alder, and I pulled a seedling out of the ground to show them the orange nodules on the roots. They had never seen red alder before, but they immediately pointed to the root nodules and said “nitrogen fixation,” as they were familiar with those nodules from legumes that grow in their part of the world. To cap off our visit, I pulled out the increment borer, and we took turns coring a large Douglas-fir. We all huddled in close and counted the rings together, as this is a favorite activity of foresters anywhere in the world (see photo).

At the conclusion of our visit, the leader of their group said something that I thought was tremendously profound. He said: “We are all connected by forests. What you do with your forests here in America impacts us in Afghanistan, and what we do with our forests impacts you.” I now have a much better appreciation for forestry as a universal language.

By Kevin W. Zobrist
WSU Regional Extension Specialist, Forest Stewardship
Serving the North Puget Sound Area
kzobrist@wsu.edu