Family forests: public utilities that deserve support

Family forests: public utilities that deserve support

Family forests are undervalued and in trouble. Even if you don't own forestland, you should care. Consider these facts: According to the United States Forest Service, 58 percent of all of our nation's forests are owned by private landowners, and these woodlands accounted for 63 percent of our harvested timber in 2001.
Another fact: In the east, 70 percent of all our water journeys through family forests. This tree-covered land acts like a giant water filtration and storage system-the more trees, the better the water; the more clear cutting of whole forests, the more floods- an oversimplification, but a reality nonetheless.
Our government defines a family forest as any woodland plot between 10 and 999 acres owned privately by a non-industrial group, typically a family. Since 1974, the Forest Service has monitored this resource through regular surveys of landowners. The trends point to some troubling problems.
One is the increasing fragmentation of forestland. Over 70 percent of these private landowners own relatively small plots, between 10 and 49 acres. The smaller acreages tend to have more roads and often these roads lead to erosion and poor water quality.
Another common problem with small, privately-owned forests is a lack of any management plan. These plans inventory a woodland and help owners determine the best actions to meet specific goals, like improving the health of the forest or sustainably-harvesting timber. Yet according to a Roper Public Affairs study, less than 10 percent of all owners have a management plan, and this lack often leads to less healthy forests and a diminishing supply of lumber.
A third problem facing family forests is the generational turnover much of this land will soon face. The average age of forest owners is 62 and nearly 7 out of ten are 55 or older. We as a society usually don't discuss death and all of the issues surrounding estates. Often after the owner dies, the land is surveyed and sold to pay estate taxes or simply because children have moved away and have little interest in the land.
There are solutions to many of these problems, though most don't come cheaply. One new avenue is to value the forests for more than just timber, and then to compensate the landowners for this value. The recent interest in carbon credits pursues this idea.
At the national level, Congress should continue to support conservation measures that reward good forestry practices. Previous Farm Bills have done so, but more investment is needed to help communities work toward sustainable solutions.
At the state level, Minnesota and Wisconsin lead others in offering incentive payments and tax breaks to landowners who manage their forests sustainably. By working with owners to develop sound management plans, these programs insure a long-term source of valuable timber and clean air and water in their regions. Other states could do the same.
To tackle estate planning and land transfer problems, several states, including Virginia, Maryland, and New York, have created programs that help families address these difficult issues. In Pennsylvania, FarmLink, a non-profit organization, provides a similar service. Workshops to help landowners understand their options and plan accordingly are available, but landowners have to be willing to wrestle with these hard questions.
One of the most promising solutions to many problems facing family forests occurs when individuals join to form community associations or cooperatives. These groups collectively combine their woodlands to overcome the fragmentation problems and focus on watershed-wide solutions. Through educational outreach, they help landowners create management plans and pool resources to reach larger markets. One example is the Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative in Virginia. These landowners all practice certified sustainable forestry and also process their timber into flooring and paneling. In so doing they capture more of the profit and thus offset the added expense that accompanies sustainable forestry. This and other groups, however, are struggling to get started down this healthier but different path. Investment from the larger community as well as government aid would insure this start-up business succeeds and becomes a model for other regions.
We all benefit from these family forests, the clean air and water that they provide along with wildlife habitat. Yet when it comes time to pay for the environmental qualities that accompany sound management, usually the public benefits while the private landowner covers the expenses. It doesn't have to be this way. We can all urge our elected officials to help fund family forest initiatives and when possible, each of us can invest in local and "green" organizations that promote a healthy forest economy.
In turn we will breathe cleaner air and drink purer water.

Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University, writes a column for the Roanoke Times New River Current and is author of Finding a Clear Path, a book of essays.

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