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Participatory Needs Assessment: Improving Extension Forestry Programs by Making Learners Partners

Chris Schnepf

University of Idaho, UI Kootenai County Extension Office,
106 E. Dalton Avenue, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 83815-7333. USA.


Under traditional needs assessment methods, extension educators work with local advisory committees to guide the direction of extension programs in a region. These methods have their place, but more participatory needs assessment methods allow greater freedom to select participants from targeted groups of people than advisory committees do, as membership in the latter is often dictated by formal regulations or appointments by elected officials. These tools also provide opportunities for stakeholders to contribute directly to the development of programs that will meet their educational needs in the most effective ways. The University of Idaho has used focus groups, quality assurance committees, and localized steering committees to enlist direct involvement by forest owners, loggers, and others in designing programs and educational materials intended to help them improve forest management practices. Historically, the majority of participants attending University of Idaho Extension forestry programs were the same people attending repeatedly. In programs planned using participatory methods, fewer than half of the participants have typically indicated previous involvement in forestry education or assistance programs. Seventy-five to ninety percent of these participants typically indicate they will implement improved management practices as a result. Participatory needs assessment methods may be vital to improving extension forestry programs by targeting under-served audiences and empowering self-directed learning. These techniques can be used in tandem with qualitative research efforts to further improve our understanding of forest owners and workers and how to work with them more effectively.


Idaho is located in the northwestern United States, roughly 300 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The majority of the work discussed in this paper was in the four counties of the Idaho Panhandle, the northernmost portion of the state bordered by Washington State, Montana, and Canada. The Idaho panhandle is on the west slope of the northern Rocky Mountains and annual rainfall ranges from 500 to over 1500 mm. Over 83% of the Idaho panhandle is forested, with climax tree species ranging from ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) on the driest sites to western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) on moist sites. Other flora and fauna are similarly diverse with both boreal and coastal species present in addition to common Rocky Mountain species.

Over 2,169,500 hectares (44% of all forested land in these counties) are held by over 28,000 private forest owners11. The remaining land is held by the federal government (39%), state government (9%), and forest industry (8%). The average timber harvest from private forests there has averaged over 177 million board feet annually since 1987, with an estimated value22 of $71 million for mill delivered logs, or $106 million milled.

Individual forest owners receive limited, on-site technical forestry assistance from state foresters and a wider range of services from private consulting foresters. University of Idaho Extension has the lead responsibility to provide education programs for private forest owners.

Traditional Extension Needs Assessment

As natural resource scientists, we often have a subject matter-bias in extension efforts; extension is simply a matter of figuring out how to “make them ‘get’” the knowledge we believe is most important. We generally have a better understanding of natural resource science than those without formal training in forestry. But, knowing forest science is only part of the extension effort. Extension programs are not fruitful without adequate understanding of peoples’ specific problems, questions, and learning styles.

Under traditional needs assessment methods, extension educators work with local advisory committees (with membership often dictated by formal regulations or appointments by elected officials) to guide the direction of extension programs. In addition to these groups, many extension forestry programs in the United States rely on input from forest owner associations and forest industry groups, much in the same way that agricultural extension programs get advice and input from agricultural commodity associations.

Participatory Extension Needs Assessment

These traditional extension needs assessment methods provide a degree of participation in extension program development, and sometimes provide for legitimisation by elected officials and other stakeholders. But they often represent a minority of people who need the extension programming. For example, in Idaho, less than 2% of the 13,400 forest owners of more than 10 acres are members of the state forest owner association. Nationally, that percentage is likely less than 5% (Marchant 1996).

Other needs assessment methods allow greater freedom to target underserved groups of people than advisory committees and commodity groups typically do. The University of Idaho has used focus groups, quality assurance committees, and localized steering committees to enlist direct participation by previously un-reached forest owners, loggers, and others in designing programs and educational materials intended to help them improve forest management practices.

Focus groups

In 1991, the University of Idaho received grant assistance through the Idaho Forest Stewardship Program, a cooperative effort of many agencies and organizations, to conduct a series of educational activities designed to strengthen the stewardship skills of private forest owners.

A common criticism of past University of Idaho Extension forestry programs and other U.S. extension forestry programs (Marchant 1996) is that "the same people always come". Idaho private forest owners were surveyed in 1987 (Force and Lee 1991), but that report did not analyze educational needs of "inactive" private forest owners (landowners with limited participation in forestry education or assistance programs). We used focus group interviews to design programs to reach a wider spectrum of forest owners than had traditionally participated in Idaho forest owner education or assistance programs.

A focus group is a carefully planned and moderated one-two hour discussion, held in a permissive, non-threatening environment, with 5-10 participants. The moderator unobtrusively guides the discussion through a pre-established “questioning route”. Notes are taken by an assistant and sessions are usually audio or video recorded for later analysis. Focus groups can generate a wider range of specific ideas than mail or telephone surveys, because participants interact and draw detailed responses from each other. Focus groups have been used for many years by social scientists and market researchers. Their use has spread to news organizations, educational institutions, and other groups.

We held focus group interviews with randomly selected "inactive" private forest owners, to strengthen the likelihood that Idaho forest stewardship educational programs would attract them. To recruit interviewees, we randomly called forest owners then asked them questions to screen out forest owner association members and participants in forestry technical assistance, cost share, or education programs. People who made it through the screens were invited to participate in the focus groups.

We used information from those focus group interviews (e.g., Figure 1) to develop an annual series of workshops, field days and other educational activities titled “Strengthening Forest Stewardship Skills”. Per focus group results, the program features a comprehensive calendar of events; a wide array of topics, and programs offered at multiple locations and varied times (e.g., week-day evening programs, week-end field programs, etc.).

Figure 1: Idaho forest owner extension program preferences identified in 1992 focus group interviews.

Focus group participants preferred programs which:

  • they heard about repeatedly, through several sources;
  • were held on a weekday evening or a weekend ("8 - 5" jobs had prevented many individuals' participation);
  • were held within 20-50 miles of their residence;
  • were three hours long or less for evening programs, and 6-8 hours long for weekend programs (more than 3 hours because day is already "killed");
  • were not held during harvest seasons;
  • Were held in day time, if in winter;
  • were offered at optional times and places;
  • they knew about well in advance (participants expressed a strong interest in an annual or quarterly list of events);
  • promotions suggested were well prepared (ex: a course outline, clear goals);
  • were offered at different levels, for landowners with varying levels of expertise;
  • mixed teaching methods; and
  • featured objective presenters.

Since 1992, between 400 and 900 people have participated annually in a total of 168 forest stewardship programs on 33 different topics. On program evaluations, fewer than 40% of the respondents typically indicate previous participation in forestry education or assistance programs. In our “keystone” forest stewardship program, a six-week forestry shortcourse designed to coach forest owners in writing their own forest stewardship plans, that number has never been higher than 26%. Seventy-five to ninety percent of these participants typically indicate they will implement improved management practices as a result. Grant funding for “Strengthening Forest Stewardship Skills” has been renewed annually since 1991.

Focus groups can also be modified for different contexts. For example, we used two focus group interviews to get input on extension programming on ecosystem management from the same group of Inland Northwest forest owners -- before and after a three-day symposium on the topic. Focus groups are also commonly used in combination with other research or needs assessment methods (e.g. designing mail or telephone survey instruments or to interpreting survey results).

It has become fashionable to call any form of group process a “focus group”. Focus groups have distinct differences, strengths, and weaknesses compared to advisory committees or nominal group process sessions. For example, focus groups are designed to obtain a range of perceptions about a specific topic, idea, or product, rather than a prioritised list. For more information on conducting focus groups, there are a number of good references, including Krueger (1988) and Morgan (1997).

Quality Assurance Committees

Focus groups can be used to target specific audiences or issues and can reveal unimagined insights to improving extension forestry programs. But they still function primarily to gather input – participants do not generally plan specific programs or publications. Quality assurance committees (“QAC’s”) go a step further; providing some needs assessment, but also involving a sample of learners to interact and participate as active partners in program development (Havens and Trail 1976).

A quality assurance committee consists primarily of people who will be using the program or material (e.g., forest owners, loggers) and secondarily of stakeholders (e.g., state foresters, consulting foresters, etc.). As with focus groups, QAC’s allow more freedom to include people who would not necessarily be appointed to “formal” advisory committees. QAC’s may also be attractive to individuals who do not want to commit to general advisory committees but are more willing to contribute their time to something with a clear, concrete result (e.g., a publication).

We have used QAC’s to prepare scripts for videos on forest water quality and leave tree selection, and a handbook for conservation district supervisors. In those efforts, QAC members helped assess initial specific education needs; critiqued the education product during all phases of its development (e.g., by reviewing draft scripts or publications); helped focus product marketing, both in design and publicity after release; and promoted the final product with their peers.

Taking this effort to build learners directly into educational material development has helped ensure our extension publications and videos are well suited to learners’ needs and learning styles. For example, in water quality video evaluations (mailed 15 months after the video release), most people who viewed the video rated it as good to excellent, and 87% of the adult respondents indicated they would implement improved management practices as a result.

Structure of QAC meetings and correspondence depends on participants’ preferences and the nature of the project. It is often best to place landowners/forest laborers and natural resource professionals in separate groups, as the former often defer to natural resource professionals in a group setting. An alternative is to weight the committee membership dominantly to landowners/forest laborers. The committee can meet once or twice then rely primarily on mail and telephone correspondence for further activity, or meet more often for in-depth interaction on the project. It is often helpful to start with a fairly open discussion of the issues, to stay open to fresh ideas, then move into a more formal outline or text. QAC comments may be sparse until participants have something tangible to respond to (Schnepf 1989). QAC members often share draft documents with peers. Encouraging this captures a wider range and depth of input.

Localized Steering Committees

Historically, few U.S. extension programs were targeted directly to loggers. That changed with Logger Education to Advance Professionalism (“LEAP”), a national extension program piloted in Idaho and several other states. LEAP features over 20 hours of training designed to increase loggers’ understanding and skills related to forest ecology, silviculture, and water quality.

Because loggers were not represented in either local extension advisory committees or the forest owners association, we needed to do some direct needs assessment with them. We established local steering committees of loggers to help guide LEAP format, timing, and content. Membership included a broad range of loggers from different communities and types of operations (e.g., those using ground-based and cable logging systems, one-person operations and larger logging firms, etc.).

These committees modified LEAP from two separate 2-day programs on water quality and silviculture into one integrated 3-day program with a stronger insect and disease component. The names of loggers who served on the committee are included on the annual brochure announcing the programs, both to recognize their service and signal potential participants that loggers had helped in the program development.

Over 700 Idaho loggers have attended LEAP since 1993. On exit evaluations, 88-100 percent of the participants have indicated they would implement improved management practices as a result of the program.

Loggers are frequently criticized about forest practices. In addition to getting real input on program development, the LEAP steering committees have helped loggers trust that the experience they bring to the program is valued. I believe this has also helped internalize their investment in continuing education. Many Idaho loggers have traditionally resisted efforts at developing any kind of formal or informal credentials for logging, fearing a more restrictive regulatory environment. Idaho loggers’ and forest industry’s experiences with LEAP and on LEAP steering committees helped create grassroots support for Idaho’s new “Pro-Logger” program, run by the state logging association, that requires all participating loggers to take LEAP, and an additional 16 hours of continuing education annually. In 1999, most of Idaho’s major forest product companies started requiring their loggers to participate in the program.

Localized steering committees have been an effective way for us to enlist local people in developing programs for new or under-served audiences. Many extension programs have committees of this type for different events and programs. One could strengthen the participation of steering committee members much more than we have with the LEAP committees thus far (e.g., having them present parts of programs, etc.).

The Scholarship of Engagement

Foresters have been accused of taking an “omnipotent”, “father knows best” attitude towards the public and forest owners (Behan 1989; Luloff 1995). Much research and needs assessment on private forest owners in the United States has relied on mail and telephone surveys. Surveys can be useful, but many U.S. forest owner surveys have seemed to ask similar questions and report pretty similar findings. By themselves, I do not believe surveys adequately challenge the way we think about and interact with private forest owners.

Focus group interviews are commonly used as a qualitative research method. Qualitative approaches can provide an antidote for our own disciplinary and institutional biases and bring us fresh ideas about forest owners and how to work with them (Bliss and Martin 1989). One value imbedded in varying degrees in qualitative research approaches is an emphasis on not treating those being researched strictly as objects – even aspiring to making them partners -- in the effort to tell their story from the ground up (Bogden and Biklen 1992; Creswell 1998). Coincidentally, one of the major themes in adult education is the concept of adults as self-directed learners. Adult education programs are stronger to the extent learners are active partners in the process – what Malcolm Knowles introduced to the U.S. as “andragogy” (literally “leading adult learning”) as opposed to pedagogy, which originally referred specifically to teaching children, but over time has been used to refer to all teaching (Ingalls 1976).

Participatory qualitative research approaches (Reason 1994), strike me as having rich parallels with extension, and would seem to be a natural vehicle to simultaneously conduct extension and research programs. In conversations with peers at other U.S. universities, I am frequently struck by how often faculty with extension appointments find it difficult to work through the promotion and tenure process -- work in extension/outreach is commonly given less weight than research. Tying to participatory qualitative research approaches for Extension needs assessment, programming, and outcome evaluation could simultaneously broaden and deepen our understanding of private forest owners and provide unique opportunities to document and validate scholarship in extension and research. Such an approach would also dovetail nicely with a growing discussion in the U.S. on “the scholarship of engagement” (Simpson 2000; Kellogg Commission 1999).


Participatory needs assessment methods may be vital to improving extension forestry programs by targeting under-served audiences and empowering self-directed learning. These techniques can be used in tandem with qualitative research efforts to further improve our understanding of forest owners and workers and how to work with them more effectively.


1. Behan, T. 1996. The myth of the omnipotent forester. Journal of Forestry 64(6): 398-407.

2. Bliss, J.C. and A.J. Martin. 1989. Identifying NIPF management motivations with qualitative methods. Forest Science 35(2): 601-22.

3. Bogden, R.C. and S.K Biklen. 1992. Qualitative research for education: an introduction to theory and methods., Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

4. Creswell, J.W. 1998. Qualitative inquiry and research design – choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

5. Force, J.E. and H.L. Lee. 1991. Nonindustrial private forest owners in Idaho. Western Journal of Applied Forestry (6)2:32-36.

6. Havens, J. and T.F. Trail. 1976. Self-learning approach to staff development. Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service. Pullman, WA. 64 pp.

7. Egan, A.F., S.G. Jones, A.E. Luloff, and J.C. Finley. 1995. The value of using multiple methods: An illustration using survey, focus group, and delphi techniques. Society and Natural Resources 8:457-465.

8. Ingalls, J.D. 1976. A trainers guide to andragogy (revised edition). U.S. Government Printing Office. O-599-416. 242 pp.

9. Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. 1999. Returning to our roots: the engaged institution. Third Report.

10. Krueger, R.A. 1988. Focus groups: a practical guide for applied research. Beverly Hills CA: Sage.

11. Luloff, A.E. 1995. Regaining vitality in the forestry profession: a sociologist's perspective. Journal of Forestry (93)11:6-9.

12. Marchant, J. 1996. Landowner association perspective. In: Symposium on nonindustrial private forests proceedings. M. J. Baughman and N. Goodman (Eds.). University of Minnesota Extension Service, St. Paul, MN. p.37-40.

13. Morgan, D.L. 1997. Focus groups as qualitative research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

14. Reason, P. 1994. Overview: three approaches to participative inquiry p. 324-339, in N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

15. Simpson, R.D. 2000. Toward a scholarship of outreach and engagement in higher education. Journal of higher education and Engagement 6(6):7-12.

16. Schnepf, C.C. 1989. Development of a handbook for Washington conservation district supervisors. M.A. Special Problems Paper, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

1 Ownership data from Bundy, Idaho Department of Lands, 1972. This number has likely increased greatly due to property splits. Private forest owners in this paper exclude forest industry ownerships and so are synonymous with non-industrial private forest (NIPF) owners.

2 Values estimated at $400/MBF for mill delivered logs, and $600/MBF for milled products (in American dollars).

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