The Focus Group

July 5, 2010

Scott Davis sent me an email a couple of months ago asking me to a meeting in Almonte which had potential to be interesting. Scott’s with the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, a non-governmental organization which works as a go-between among industry, government, and woodlot owners.

Elizabeth Holmes is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph as well as a member of the Model Forest staff. Her research concerns woodlot owners and what motivates them. This meeting of the first focus group for Elizabeth’s project involved a dozen individuals Scott rounded up. We would meet for a day while Elizabeth and Melanie took copious notes on the issues we raised in response to general questions about the provision of ecological goods and services through woodlot ownership.

Turns out the meeting was at the Union Hall in Tatlock. Many years ago two townships combined their efforts to build the hall: hence the name. It was a pleasant drive up through a well-treed landscape.

By the time the introductions were complete I realized that this would be a very informative discussion. The people in the room had unique perspectives and lots to say. The only thing they held in common (apart from availability on a week day) was a deep attachment the land they tend.

A few inherited their land. Some bought a hunting preserve and discovered its year-long appeal. Families discovered that the woodlot met their needs better than a cottage or golf course. Fleeing city concrete figured prominently in the introductions. Everyone plants trees. Maple syrup, of course, was mentioned often. Most were eager to recount their stewardship activities over the last few years or generations.

The first common concern to emerge had to do with passing our life’s work on to the next generation. Government recognizes the value of privately-held forest tracts by reducing the property taxes on managed properties. Tax breaks are also available to tree farms, though the same issue comes up: at some point the woodlot must begin to pay for itself. Otherwise the landowner or the family members who follow will be unable to keep it.

Elizabeth leaped in with the purpose of this first focus group, to define the terms of the dialogue which will emerge in the next few years between the public, government, and the land owner.

She explained that in Costa Rica, Bolivia, England, the United States and Australia, government or charitable organizations have launched programs to pay landholders for ecological goods and services. At least three similar programs are in early days in Canada.

These ecological benefits (I’m reluctant to use the acronym) are much easier to understand in a county like Bolivia where burning the forest for livestock grazing is a major environmental problem. A beehive (cost: $3.00) can protect ten hectares for a year. In-kind payments are more acceptable to landholders than cash, because with cash comes the perception of lost control of one’s land.

New York City discovered it was cheaper and easier to pay the farmers upsteam to improve the quality of the rivers than to build a new water treatment plant.

The Australian government has little trouble politically with the funding of water improvement programs, but how about in Canada? With so much of it around us, it’s hard to imagine paying for water (unless it’s in a ½ litre bottle). In Canada most ecological spending is based on guilt and goes to organizations. None of it currently gets to the provider of many of the goods and services, the farmer or woodlot owner.

Elizabeth’s study is to identify the issues and begin the dialogue for the move to recognizing and rewarding landowners and farmers for the critical role they play as environmental stewards.

Elizabeth Holmes:

The Eastern Ontario Model Forest is exploring ways to recognize the contributions that farmers and landowners make in providing ecological goods and services. Over the next year we will host a series of focus group sessions with you to identify how best to develop a workable EG&S program framework for eastern Ontario.

Here are a few questions we’ll explore with you in focus groups:

1. How might the responsibilities and costs for providing and safeguarding EG&S be shared among institutions, taxpayers, consumers and landowners?

2. What constitutes going “the extra step” towards providing EG&S, and how can that be translated into payment?

3. What types of incentive or forms of recognition are most valued by landowners?

4. What best EG&S practices and stewardship programs might we use as a base?

5. How do we generate and sustain funding in support of incentives?

6. Given the sheer complexity of ecosystems, how do we measure or verify that environmental goods and services have been provided or safeguarded?

We are very interested in the views of woodlot owners and farmers in eastern Ontario. If you’d like to participate in a focus group session, please contact Elizabeth Holmes at eholmes@eomf.on.ca or (613) 258-8415.

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