In the late 1990s, I moved to Maryland to teach in a public middle school, a career that I thoroughly enjoyed before being drawn into in the environmental world.

On a beautiful cold day in February, I once again found myself standing in front of a classroom of students, trying to convince them that forests were important and quite relevant to their lives.

This day, though, it was not 30 rambunctious 7th graders, but a group of real estate professionals. While not the typical audience for environmental education or the latest Bay restoration efforts, they are an important link in the conservation of the region's private forests and other natural resources because of their job selling real estate.

Many of us already know that forests play a crucial role in maintaining and improving the quality of streams and rivers throughout the Chesapeake watershed. Some people also recognize other ecosystem benefits trees provide: air filtration, habitat, flood control, forest products and fuel.

The ability to provide these benefits in the future is largely in the hands of private citizens, who own almost 80 percent of the forest land in the region.

Despite the continual decline in the number of tree-covered acres in the region, the number of people owning pieces of forest land keeps increasing. Why? It is because forests are continually being subdivided into smaller and smaller parcels. In the last 20 years, the number of forest landowners has increased 25 percent. And today 70 percent of the people who own a forest, own less than 10 acres.

In Maryland, there are more than 156,000 forest owners. Parcels change hands often, every 12 years on average. This situation makes it challenging for the foresters and state natural resource programs trying to reach out to them with stewardship programs.

Trends point to even greater challenges in the future. Maryland continues to attract new residents, even in a weakened economy. The Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure Commission projects that the state's population will increase by 1.1 million by 2030.

The loss of forests and their declining health can impact watersheds and their ability to sustain and enhance water quality at a time when we are working hard to reverse past damage.

So who cares about forests? Who should care? New landowners may view their woods as just an incidental part of their property, something that came with the house. Most new landowners are unaware of the need to maintain and enhance the health of their forest, and are unlikely to seek help from a professional forester or the opportunities provided by government assistance programs. The only person they know who understands the nature of their land and their new responsibilities may be their real estate agent.

The Alliance's Forestry for the Bay program recognized this challenge. We have developed and are offering a course to specifically help Maryland real estate agents understand the economic, ecological and social importance of forest ownership while providing tools for them to use when communicating with new forest owners. Modeled after an innovative Virginia Tech program, Real Forestry for Real Estate, this training enhances the skills and marketability of the agents by making them more knowledgeable land brokers with a better understanding of one of their products, properties with woods.

The inaugural course at Allegany College of Maryland, in Cumberland, in collaboration with the College's Center for Continuing Education and the Historic Highlands Realtor Association. It drew more than 60 Realtors as well as several private woodland owners and a dozen natural resource students from the college.

Participant feedback was incredibly positive and the Realtors received continuing education credits valuable to their professional certification. Course materials and presentations are available for later use on the new Maryland Realtors Natural Resources Portal, on the Forestry for the Bay website.

Additional real estate courses will be offered throughout Maryland in cooperation with other community colleges. Courses are already scheduled at Wor-Wic Community College, in Salisbury this spring and at Cecil College and the Community College of Baltimore County during the fall. Partners are being sought for a course in Southern Maryland.

The Alliance also designed a new Welcome to Your Woods publication for agents to share with their clients. The guide serves as a welcome wagon, of sorts, for new forest owners by explaining the benefits of owning woods, the basics on how they work and the variety of opportunities available to help care for them. Welcome to Your Woods is also useful for any Maryland woodland owner interested in taking care of their forest. It is never too late to get started. The publication may be downloaded for free from the Forestry for the Bay website.

Real estate means real forests as well. The Alliance hopes to adapt and offer this course next year to real estate agents in Pennsylvania and eventually to their colleagues in the other Bay watershed states.

For information, go to www.forestryforthebay.org or www.allianceforthebay.org.