What Sustainable Forests Mean to Private Woodland Owners

An article from National Woodlands Magazine, Autumn 2011  info@nwoa.net

The U.S. Forest Service’s National Report on Sustainable Forests confirms that private woodland owners are the biggest group of forest stakeholders in the United States. Collectively, they guide the balance of working family forests and emerging developments across the landscape. The decisions you make about your land today-to manage for the things you deem valuable-will determine what America’s forests will look like in the future.

Will the landscape look the same? Will the land produce clean air, sparkling water, abundant wildlife habitat along with valuable and sustainable forest products? What is your role? What is your stake?

Talk to forest owners and you’ll hear a wide variety of reasons to own and manage land. Many landowners enjoy the rewards and stewardship of growing timber as an investment with sustainable cash income. Others have never witnessed a chainsaw drop a tree or never heard the whine of a bandsaw blade slicing boards. It suits them to leave their trees untouched. There are folks who count themselves as guardians of wildlife, protecting and preserving certain habitat so they can watch, feed, and photograph their favorite animals.

Growing timber for profit can include periodic thinning, improvement cuts, prescribed fire, or clear cuts. In some stands it means leaving the woods alone for 10 or 20 years. The owners of neighboring woodlands may forego management for timber and focus instead on practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Other neighbors may do neither, preferring instead to leave their woodland to the process of natural stand succession. Landowners are as likely to consider themselves protectionists as they are conservationists, and not necessarily distinguish the differences between the two points of view. Neither idea is wrong, but conservation, when smartly applied, is the more realistic and adaptable approach. Forests are dynamic systems that undergo constant change at various scales. Preservation, meaning to keep something exactly the same over time, is not possible with a living forest. It is always changing. While the National Report on Sustainable Forests finds that overall U.S. forest area is stable, that model only measures how much of our forests we use compared to how much is replenished.

A large portion of landowners, for reasons of their own, are not actively involved in their woods. Some inherited them and live some distance away. Others are managing farmland and ignore the woods that are included in the acreage. Many view the land primarily as an investment, to be sold when the time and price are right. In a growing nation with an appetite to use land for homes and cities, this is also a valid objective as long as the property is not permitted to degrade and harm adjacent woodlands. However, to maintain sustainability, other land must be forested.

What motivates people to get involved and take good care of their land? Watching wildlife, a nice stream, an inspiring view, or the edge of a field where grandchildren play—these all are just a fraction of the reasons people buy land and hang onto it—generation to generation. Everyone owns what they do for a reason. It may be managing for financial return, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, a desire to work outside in a place of their own or to pass forest assets and knowledge to the generation. Despite these good intentions, among the nation’s nearly 11 million private woodland owners, fewer than 20 percent avail themselves of the services of a forester and only two percent join landowner associations to advocate for rights and issues related to forest ownership and management.

It’s the joiners who are the leaders of the private forest ownership community. The world, as the old adage goes, is run by those who show up. The same is certainly true for landowners. These citizens—passionate, curious, and energetic enough to educate themselves about natural resource issues, and then join together with others in an organized fashion—are the same people who influence legislatures and policymakers regarding the rules and regulations that accompany forest ownership. The National Report on Sustainable Forests provides critical information at a critical time. Landowners are concerned about many of the ‘big picture’ issues identified in the Report: Climate Change, Globalization, Biomass Energy, Urbanization & Land Use, Forest Fragmentation, Loss of Working Forests, and Forest Disturbance. The aggregate will of landowners to participate in their local, regional, and national systems of government and education has enormous potential to sustain our forests over the long-term. By encouraging society to address these critical issues and make forests a permanent part of our social, ecological, and economic backdrop, we create real benefits for individuals and society at large.

It’s your land, right? So why should you be concerned about society? The short answer is that society needs and uses the goods and services that flow from private forests: building materials, paper, clean water and air, wildlife habitat and natural beauty. The nation’s rapidly growing energy needs are looking beyond coal and natural gas toward woody biomass harvested from forests. Wood energy is renewable and sustainable. And we have lots of it. The need for biomass is growing and government agencies as well as private companies have made significant investments to develop this market.

Payments for ecosystem services, where landowners can gain some return for the numerous benefits their lands give to society, could be an additional source of income for a property tax credit. The general public sometimes thinks of forestry as a holdover from the past, but the National Report highlights the many ways in which they can contribute to the future. Fact is, our forests are now more important than ever.

What can you do as a woodland owner to make a positive impact? First, stay up to date on the latest forestry and land use information in your region. This will help make the best management and volunteer decisions. There are good sources of information available. Landowner associations, wildlife groups, Extension programs, the U.S. Forest Service, state forestry, and wildlife agencies, DNR Small Forest Landowner Office as well as land trusts and soil and water conservation workshops for landowners and managers. From timer taxes to mushroom growing, one will find useful information.

After thinking about how the nuts and bolts of owning land relate to the ‘big picture’ of sustainable forestry and land management, consider the following:

  • Volunteer to teach your neighbors and peers about what you’ve learned.
  • Make periodic visits to your boundaries to confirm both you and your neighbor are doing what you each want to do on your woodlands.
  • Join your local woodland owner group. If you’re a leader, lead.
  • Encourage children, grandchildren, and those younger than you to see the same values you see. You might spark something important!
  • Download and review the National Report on Sustainable Forests: http://www.fs.fed.us/research/sustain/2010SustainabilityReport/documents/2010_SustainabilityReport.pdf

It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it for a financial return, or you simply love watching deer eat your apples, the end goal is the same. Work with your local woodland owner association or cooperative, DNR Small Forest Landowner Office and with NWOA, the Tree Farm System, state affiliates of the Alliance of Landowner Associations, or other means. The key is to stay involved, share your perspectives and experiences, and advocate for your best interests.

Just as you guide your woodlands, the National Report on Sustainable Forests will guide state and federal forest policy. Sustainable forests are an important national infrastructure, and you’re part of it.