Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A bird watcher, a lumber manufacturer, and a wildlife biologist walk into a bar…Or was it a forest?
Wherever you find the American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) Emily Jo Williams, Westervelt’s Jonathan Lowery, and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement Inc.’s (NCASI) Darren Miller together, you can be sure there will be plenty of laughs and no shortage of conservation inspiration.
At first blush, these three might seem like unlikely allies, but you only have to get Emily Jo (EJ) Williams, ABC’s Vice President of Migratory Birds and Habitats, talking about the majesty of birds to feel her contagious enthusiasm spread among other stakeholders.
“Birds can make any forest beautiful!” exclaims Williams. “In fact, I don’t think I ever had a choice in the matter: I’ve loved birds and wildlife all my life—by default, it seems. Birds are special because I think they’re the most accessible piece of the wildlife puzzle—no matter where you live, you can see and appreciate the birds around you. And because we can all relate to that experience, I believe birds are the key to saving nature.”
For Williams, and anyone who wanders into the woods with her, getting people excited about birds is the first step in having them understand the role they can play to improve and conserve wildlife habitat. It’s a simple idea, with unlimited impact, for those who are willing to collaborate.
“The key word is collaboration. There can be risks involved in trying to understand other perspectives, but there are also positives. Landowners should be willing to consider how we can improve so that we can build the trust that leads to better conservation results,” says Lowery, Westervelt’s Sustainability Manager.
Linking Forests at an Unprecedented Scale
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) works to address critical sustainability challenges, such as maintaining and recovering species at risk. SFI’s conservation efforts contribute to the SFI standards by quantifying conservation benefits across the SFI footprint. Part of the SFI Conservation Grant Program, the “Bird Conservation Goes Continental” grant links conservationists, researchers, and SFI-certified organizations in a groundbreaking project to understand and advance conservation benefits for birds on SFI-certified forestlands. The project launched with pilot projects in the U.S. Southeast and the Pacific Northwest, and now it’s expanding across the U.S.-Canada border through a partnership with the University of Alberta’s Boreal Avian Modelling project. With the help of the American Bird Conservancy and other organizations like NCASI and NatureServe, researchers are examining the needs of a wide variety of birds to better understand the effect of sustainable forest management on broader ecosystem health. By building on our understanding of the relationship between well-managed forests and habitat for birds, we hope to pinpoint how forest management can benefit birds and illustrate that sustainable forestry benefits many species.
It’s an unprecedented undertaking, and the first time this sort of data has been collected in a coordinated fashion across multiple private forestlands. With each project area crossing different property lines on lands owned by competing manufacturers or forest management companies, consolidating the spatial information of each SFI-certified organization was important for success. Fortunately, the conservation partners and companies involved were committed to creative approaches to solving issues of data-sharing, while protecting proprietary information, and more than a dozen forest sector companies decided to participate.
NCASI developed the innovative approach that made collaboration possible by protecting the proprietary aspects of ownerships while enabling analysis across properties. SFI’s Chief Conservation Officer, Paul Trianosky, jokingly calls it “the black box method”—huge amounts of data from diverse sources go in, scientists query it for conservation data, and aggregated results come out the other side. In addition to the companies’ forest inventory data, data from conservationists and citizen scientists were also incorporated. This included data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ebird citizen-science database, ABC employees and volunteers avicaching, and point count bird surveys professionally conducted by the Avian Research and Conservation Institute.
“It started conversations between bird conservationists, land managers, and foresters. And those conversations resulted in methodologies that could be used as a model for other types of conservation research, in other places,” says Miller, NCASI’s Vice-President of Forestry Programs.
Unlike humans, birds only see the forest, not boundary lines. To make a real impact for birds (and all wildlife), we must bring together all stakeholders to manage the whole landscape, whether that’s across the fences dividing private property, or the borders that separate countries. All agree that the next big conservation challenge in North America will be tackling conservation work on private lands. By expanding this work across the Canada-U.S. border, the hope is additional pilot testing will ensure accuracy when delivering methods at a continental scale, across diverse ecological conditions and ownerships.
Benefits and Lessons Learned
We all benefit from birds: flower fertilization, seed dispersal, pest and weed control, a link in the food chain for other creatures, and the melodic sounds of songbirds, to name a few. The benefits to private landowners extend far beyond their bottom line because, as Lowery says, the research gives insight into the species that share the land. Williams is excited about the opportunity to provide data that determines and confidently communicates the conservation benefits of well-managed forests, allowing landowners to more broadly understand the diverse values that birds bring to everyone.
Most importantly, perhaps, the project is already providing recommendations for small and large private landowners in the U.S. Southeast with the publication of ABC’s Bird Friendly Forests Booklet, which details opportunities for private forest owners in the Southeast to improve their forests for greater conservation benefits. More than half of all forestland in the United States is privately-owned. And with recently published research pointing to a massive decline of North American bird populations, there may be no better time to effectively communicate the role we all have in restoring and caring for forest birds.
EJ Williams speaking at a forest landowner bird conservation workshop in Aliceville, Alabama. These workshops have been integral to not only sharing information but building lasting partnerships.
Historically, many conservation initiatives have been built without input from private landowners. Often, this has resulted in recommendations that are inconsistent with the constraints landowners face. Sometimes, it even results in ill-will from landowners who want to help but have been excluded from the planning process. This work, facilitated by SFI, effectively flips that scenario with landowners participating in every step of the process and developing implementable strategies.
For Lowery and his company, Westervelt (which is certified to the SFI Forest Management Standard), the SFI conservation grant, and the collaboration it generates, represents the opportunity to give back a little. Thinking of both his employer, as well as the natural world he loves, Lowery reflects, “Forests pay my bills. Forests provide me a living, but what is so cool about this is that while we have an opportunity to improve the economic value of our lands, we can also feel good about those improvements. Improved water quality, the opportunity to provide early successional or open canopy conditions for various bird species. To have that multi-value component, it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too. And it’s important for all of us to tell our sustainability story, to equip our teams to better understand the value of bird habitat. To tell that story and to get the word out about the value of conservation.”
Thank you to the many partners who collaborated with this project, including:
American Bird Conservancy
Avian Research and Conservation Institute
Boreal Avian Modelling Project
National Council for Air and Stream Improvement
Hancock Timber Resources Group (SFI-certified organization)
International Paper Company (SFI-certified organization)
Rayonier (SFI-certified organization)
Resource Management Service (SFI-certified organization)
The Westervelt Company (SFI-certified organization)
Weyerhaeuser (SFI-certified organization)