Summit’s Extension aims to stick around for public good
June 6, 2016
Remaining relevant in the accelerated pace of the 21st century, social media and 24/7 news-cycle environment is a challenge for all organizations, and, for those nearly a century and a half old, it's even greater.
Land-grant universities throughout the country, first established in each state while Abraham Lincoln was president through the Morrill Act in 1862, face precisely this obstacle. Follow-up legislation — also named for then-Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont and otherwise — helped solidify these institutions of higher learning as the resource of resource-backed public education with an emphasis on agriculture and mechanical arts, simply known as Extension.
Nowadays, with widespread access to the internet, an entire generation's common practice to learning about pretty much anything has become performing online information searches — Googling it. As a result, less and less weight has been placed on this type of programming nationwide, and one of the founding principles behind these land-grant schools has had to transform in order to maintain its standing in local communities.
"Knowledge turns over so rapidly with young people learning new skills, which is an important part of what education will be about into the future," said Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University, the state's land-grant college. "There's a whole lot of things we can do to help, and we have to demonstrate we are flexible in what we can deliver."
Frank, also chancellor of the entire CSU system, was through Frisco this past Friday, June 3 as part of an outreach tour across the state this summer to discuss this federally-funded public instruction initiative's function moving forward. Over breakfast with officials from Summit and Gilpin counties, as well as representatives of regional partner agency the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), he emphasized the continued importance of Extension, and how a flipped model that is more personalized from county to county adds real value to the area citizens and aids in accomplishing that goal.
"As a land grant, we exist to serve the state," he said. "What we do on our campuses is meant to be pushed out for the betterment of society. We didn't want to be the sort of place where we say, 'Every county needs this; we know best.' It's possible that worked in the past, but it wasn't working well for us."
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Today, CSU has an Extension agent situated in nearly all of Colorado's 64 counties, with just a few of these jointly-endowed (between the university and the region) personnel covering more than one. And the customized approach— of communicating with residents to identify the issues of importance — is assisting this informal adult-education curriculum with individual community development.
"The original model of the Extension offices was top-down — the ivory tower that produced the information — that was what was to be disseminated, dictated by the universities," said Dan Schroder, Summit County's Extension agent. "In recent times, we have had a re-organization of thought … from the bottom up, so it becomes a community-driven endeavor."
Schroder, a forest health and environmental sciences specialist, was hired in 2010 to help the region particularly with the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Wildfire prevention and mitigation naturally developed out of that programming, and today that has extended into general fuel-reduction efforts including sustainable activities in the woods concerning trails as well as water quality.
Working out of a Frisco County Commons office that includes Doug Cupp, wildfire mitigation specialist, Beth Huron, Extension's principal administrative staff, and Kathie Kralik, program manager for 4-H — essentially Extension's related and partner youth association — Schroder acts as an advocate for county directives to pass along healthy forest projects. He also lends a hand in promoting general Extension classes and workshops in horticulture and eradication of invasive weeds in addition to Extension's 10-week Colorado Master Gardening course. Natural resource education and management, he said, all comes down to dialogue.
"The first angle is you have to create that conversation and create a safe environment for people to want to communicate," he said, "and then we can get into the topics at hand from there. The core expertise piece comes in behind. So I'm very much more a social outreach educator."
For instance, locals tend to get fairly concerned when the term "clear-cut" gets bandied about regarding the forest, worrying that the action will dramatically alter the topography of the region. In reality, it's a tree-management technique to avoid a potentially deadly and costly wildfires.
"It's that word, and people imagine this nuking of the environment," he explained. "What we're really doing is a patchwork mosaic across the landscape of fuel reduction just as if a fire had come through, mimicking natural processes. Then maybe (that) makes a future fire scenario less intense for us. When I get the opportunity to speak with people and they're willing to listen, they start to see it a little bit differently."
As part of that overarching strategy, Extension is currently working to publicize the county's wood-chipping program to create defensible space between homeowners' properties and the bucolic interface that makes Summit so unique. For the third year, residents are encouraged to reduce the potential of nearby fires by clearing branches, small limbs and flammable vegetation from around their homes and leaving it in slash piles on the curb to be chipped for free, per the hauling schedule.
It's through these types of collaborative partnerships, coupled with deliberate communication, that Extension hopes to stay pertinent long into the future. Because dating back even to its founding in the mid-19th century, the program is ultimately in place for the communal benefit, to assist the municipal populaces through vetted, credible and evidence-based training.
"The whole goal is really to inform the public so that behavior changes over time might occur to enhance community," said Schroder. "With better information, people end up making better choices."