Preview: SAF’s National Convention Goes Virtual

September 2, 2020

Note: The below article is featured in the September 2020 edition of The Forestry Source to provide details surrounding the upcoming first-ever, virtual 2020 SAF National ConventionAs an additional resource, learn more about this year's convention and how it will function with the 2020 SAF National Convention FAQs.  

By Steve Wilent

SAF will hold its 2020 national convention virtually, due to the covid-19 pandemic, the first time in the Society’s 120-year history that an in-person convention hasn’t been held. If you’ve never attended a virtual convention or presentation, see “2020 Virtual National Convention FAQ” on page 16 for information about attending the event. In this article, you will hear from four SAF members who were central to planning and organizing the event, including Stephanie Miller, the 2020 Convention Program Committee chair, and three co-general chairs for 2020: Ken Laustsen, CF; Robert Ricard, CF; and Fred Borman III. 

Miller, Laustsen, Ricard, and Borman, along with numerous other volunteers, have been intimately involved in convention planning for the last two years. Each of them had words of praise and appreciation for the SAF national office staff members they’ve been working with to organize the event. “SAF staff has been instrumental in making sure that this convention moves forward. We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Miller, a regional urban forester with the Ohio Division of Forestry.

Miller noted that convention attendees will be able to access live events, such as the keynote address, panel discussions, and closing plenary, but also the video recordings of these and other technical presentations and workshops.

“Attendees will have access after the convention to watch the presentations and can receive continuing forestry education credits through the remainder of the 2020 calendar year,” she said. “That’s something that isn’t available in a normal convention. Usually attendees have to choose between concurrent sessions, but this year they’ll be able to see all of the sessions they wish to attend.”

Miller added that registration is required to attend.

“It’s considerably less expensive than a typical convention—the registration fee is 45 percent lower and, of course, there aren’t any travel expenses—so that’s a bonus,” she said. “Of course, we’ll all miss out on the in-person social networking that is so critical to every industry.”

Planning for a national convention typically begins two years before the event.

“We had all of our invited speakers lined up and everything ready to go—we were well ahead of schedule, and that worked in our favor. Once we found out that we were going to shift to a virtual convention, we checked with all of our invited speakers to make sure that this was going to be possible, whether they were comfortable with the virtual format.”

Nearly all of the invited speakers said that they were comfortable with the virtual format.

Miller said that the convention program schedule was modified to accommodate the needs of attendees.

“The program committee felt that, because we weren’t going to have everyone together in Providence at 9:00 in the morning to see the opening plenary, the keynote, and other speakers, we needed to adjust the schedule. So our live presentations start at 1:00 in the afternoon, so whether you’re on the Atlantic coast or way out west in Alaska or Hawaii, you can still tune in at a comfortable time of day.”

Laustsen, a retired Maine Bureau of Forestry biometrician, said that the convention will have a familiar feel.

“It’s going to be a first, given that it’s going to be virtual, yet the program is, for all practical purposes, going to offer the same things an in-person convention typically has. We have two plenary sessions, a keynote speaker, and poster presentations, and there will be an opportunity to view vendor exhibits in the Virtual Exhibit Hall and at the Innovation Zone sessions,” he said. “And we’ve restructured the program to move much of the technical content to Saturday, hoping that that will encourage additional attendance, especially for people who need to get their continuing education credits.”

The concurrent technical sessions will be recorded for later viewing.

“This gives members an opportunity to view them at a convenient time, whether it’s in the evening after work or a weekend.”

That also goes for the three concurrent panel discussions in the Friday Focus On session, Facets of Conservation, which presents contemporary perspectives on how foresters are practicing interdisciplinary conservation in different arenas:

Eastern White Pine: The Tree That Made a Nation
Natural Capital Markets for Every Acre in America
Science, Trees, and Quality of Life: Humanity Needs Foresters!

Laustsen said the Friday Focus On sessions at the 2019 national convention in Louisville, Kentucky, proved popular with attendees.

As with in-person technical sessions and panel discussions, their virtual counterparts will feature views of the speakers and/or their PowerPoint presentations. One difference, said Laustsen, will be in the way audience members ask questions of the speakers.

“We’re going to charge the moderators with being responsible for virtual chat rooms, where attendees can submit questions. At the end of the presentations, moderators will forward those questions to the presenters for their responses,” he said. “Otherwise, the technical sessions will follow the traditional format, with three presentations or a panel discussion over an hour and a half.”

Networking Virtually
Ricard, a senior Extension educator with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Extension and a native of Rhode Island, said that canceling the in-person convention event was a great disappointment to everyone involved in planning for the event, especially those who live and work in New England.

“Everybody likes to show off their territory, their region, their forestry,” he said. “We’re disappointed that we can’t all have clam chowder at the Friday evening social event. But in March the [covid-19] numbers were horrific and were increasing so fast, and we knew the in-person convention was going to be pulled.”

In addition to the risk of transmitting the virus through an in-person gathering, the government of Rhode Island has reserved the venue, the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, through at least the end of October for the treatment of an expected flood of people needing testing or treatment for covid-19.

However, Ricard said, the program remains as strong as they had envisioned.

“Lisa Brooks is the perfect speaker for this event, because she’s a rock star researcher, she’s indigenous—Abenaki—and fluent in the Algonquin language. Plus, it’s the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Plymouth Colony, or what some Native Americans call the invasion. Her talk really anchors this convention here in New England, even though it’s a virtual event.”

See the interview with Brooks on page 1.

Ricard’s one regret is the lack of the opportunity for in-person socializing and networking.

“We’ll have virtual networking breaks, but there’s no substitute for building relationships through meeting in person and shaking hands,” he said.
Like Ricard, Borman, too, is looking forward to hearing Lisa Brooks’ keynote address.

“It’s the 100th anniversary of the New England SAF, and also the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. It will be interesting to hear what Lisa has to say about the history of the indigenous peoples of the region and how they respected the land, managed the land, but didn’t abuse the land.”

Borman, a retired University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension forester, also agrees with Ricard on the value of in-person networking.

“It’s the personal contact, seeing the people you haven’t seen for years or people you may have only heard about through The Forestry Source or the Journal of Forestry,” he said. “We were really looking forward to having everybody come to Providence. The last time we had an SAF National Convention in New England was in Portland, Maine, in 1995.”

Doing without technical field tours also is disappointing, Borman said.

“Jeff Ward, a research forester at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, was the coordinator for the field tours, and he had some really good ones lined up. Unlike in the West, there is nowhere in New England that you can’t get to in a couple of hours. So we had some Massachusetts tours, we had some Connecticut tours, we had some Rhode Island tours, everything from watershed management to urban and community forestry, and everything in between.

Borman said he and his convention-planning colleagues hope that these tours might be offered in an SAF National Convention in New England in the future.

Borman is looking forward to the convention he helped organize, just as he has enjoyed attending conventions in the past.

“I remember the 2015 convention in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I went to a presentation on feral pigs in the South,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with feral pigs here in New Hampshire—knock on wood—but it was interesting to hear people from Mississippi and Louisiana and other states that do have a problem. It was fascinating to listen to how they try to manage the pigs and the damage they do. It’s nice to be able to get information from other parts of the country, things that we’re not used to in our part of the world. And attendees gain that kind of knowledge, virtual convention or otherwise.”

SAF members can read the full September 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.

Read the 2020 SAF National Convention FAQs here.