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Future forests rely on stewardship, knowledge of private landowners

A man at a podium presents to a room full of people

FREEPORT, Ill. — A forest is many things. Trees provide food and shelter for wildlife. Their leaves clean the air, and their roots filter water, slow floods, and prevent soil erosion. Timber products are crucial to local economies and tourism. Forests and woodlands also once made up more than a third of Illinois. Now, that number is closer to 15%, and disease, climate change, and invasive species threaten what remains.

The annual Tri-State Forest Stewardship Conference is an opportunity for Midwestern landowners and industry professionals to share ideas and resources to ensure forested areas thrive. The conference is a long-standing tradition for the tree-covered tri-state region of northwestern Illinois, which borders Iowa and Wisconsin.

Since the late 1990s, the conference has allowed private landowners, environmental stewards, scientists, and professionals to learn from each other. An estimated 132,000 private landowners own 82% of all forest land in Illinois.

“We want to help landowners access the best evidence-based information available on forest management and an opportunity to interact with forestry experts,” said Christopher Evans, forestry Extension and research specialist and one of the event coordinators. “We hope the conference allows landowners to confidently manage their forests so they are healthy and meet their personal goals.”

Photo by Sierra McCoy, Iowa State Extension.

This year, 230 people attended the program on March 2 at Highland Community College in Freeport. Attendees included forested landowners, farmers, foresters and other natural resource professionals and students. More than a dozen speakers explored timber harvest strategies, monitoring and diagnosing tree health issues, basic tree physiology, invasive plant management, prescribed fire for woodlands, forestry taxes, and more.

The keynote speaker, Jason Meyer, spoke about the White Oak Initiative, which advocates for long-term, sustainably managed oak forests. Oak trees are particularly valuable for forest ecosystem regeneration projects because they provide food and shelter for hundreds of species of moths and butterflies, which in turn are a food source for birds and other wildlife.

At the end of the day, participants asked a panel of Extension experts questions, with many focusing on what private and government cost-share and technical assistance programs are available to forest owners. And one lucky person left with the ultimate door prize — a chainsaw.

Many attendees noted in a survey response that they had put what they learned into practice from previous conferences on a variety of topics, including chain saw safety, tree planting, thinning and pruning, creating wildlife habitat, and invasive species control.

The event is co-hosted by University of Illinois Extension, University Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and Iowa State Extension. The event coordination team included Illinois Extension Natural Resources, Environment, and Energy Educator Jay Solomon and Extension Program Coordinator Nikki Keltner.

The 2025 Tri-State Conference will be in Iowa, and the 2026 conference will be in Wisconsin.

Illinois Extension foresters provide educational outreach, training, and technical assistance to support forest owners. They also conduct research projects, maintain demonstration sites, and teach courses at University of Illinois. The program is part of the university’s department of natural resources and environmental sciences.

Explore more about Extension forestry resources at

Source: Christopher Evans, Illinois Extension Forestry Extension and Research Specialist

Photo credit: Top photo by Cesar Martinez, Iowa State Extension.  

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.