This week the Associated Press tackled the issue with a story that looks at the problem through the eyes of forest owners in Vermont, but also with an eye on an innovative program out of Oregon State University.
Brett Butler, the coordinator of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Woodland Survey, says there’s a common misconception that the majority of forest land is owned by the government. Nationally, more than half of the 766 million acres of forest land is owned privately by proprietors whose average age is 62.5.
“It’s really families and individuals that control the fate and the future of the forests,” Butler said.
One of the biggest issues isn’t necessarily aging forest owners selling their land all at once but their having no way to pass it on their children and selling the land in pieces.
The concerns of forestry professionals are more subtle than the typical worries over large-scale development: as the parcels of land get smaller the people who own them might not have the same commitment to the forests as the previous landowners.
“Our alarm bells are starting to go off, not because landowners are suddenly older, but because it’s been going on long enough now that we are really beginning to see the impacts,” said Mary Sisock, an assistant professor of extension forestry at the University of Vermont, who has worked on the issue across the country.
Owners of smaller parcels are less likely to invest in forestry management plans, and managing for wildlife is more difficult than on larger plots, Sisock said. And once the land gets cut up it’s more likely it will be developed, and once developed there’s no chance it will ever again be a working forest, she said.
Enter a program from Oregon State University called Ties to the Land, which helps small forest landowners figure out ways to pass the land on to their children or grandchildren. The program is successful enough that it’s been replicated in two dozen states.
One of the complications is getting different generations of a family to talk to each other. Often the children or grandchildren don’t understand how important the tree farm is to the older generation.
(Putnam) Blodgett, 83, now of Hanover, New Hampshire, was raised on a farm in Bradford, Vermont, about 20 miles up the Connecticut River. In the mid-1950s he bought 670 acres from his parents.
Over the years he’s harvested more than 3 million board feet of logs, 4,622 cords of pulp, more than 900 cords of firewood and almost 3,000 tons of wood chips.
“I was married to the land more or less and I decided I would keep it in forests because that is a feeling of mine that is so important, to conserve the forest,” said Blodgett.
Blodgett worked with his children to come up with a plan acceptable to all. Now one son lives on a small portion of the land, he formed a limited liability company and put a conservation easement on the land that prohibits development and mandates professional forest management.
It’s not just small forest landowners who are getting older. In response, the timber industry is doing all it can to attract young professionals to work for forestry companies.
They are having some success. At last month’s annual meeting of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a panel of young forestry professionals talked about how they got into the business and where the industry is going. Some observers said it was one of the most uplifting sessions in the meeting.
Participating in the panel were Pierce Beigh of Weyerhaeuser; Nicole Kimzey of Merrill & Ring; Jake Sullivan of Port Blakely Tree Farms; and Heather Watson of Hancock Forest Management.
Go here to watch the full panel discussion on TVW.