Earl Barrs, a tree farmer of 30 years manages his family’s farm in Georgia with more than a dozen species of trees on his land. His favorite trees: his bottomland hardwoods. As bottomland hardwoods are slow-growing, Earl will only harvest small sections of the low grade trees in this stand once or twice in his lifetime. But not for a quick profit. Instead, for the purpose of allowing needed sunlight in, to allow the mature trees to keep growing, improving the overall quality of the habitat and preserving the benefits this forest provides. Thankfully this is possible because there are markets for sustainable, low-grade wood products like biomass which allow Earl and other tree farmers to do this, and to generate the income needed to be stewards of our forests’ vital resources.

But the recent Washington Post article about the growth of the biomass or wood pellet industry in the southern U.S. to fuel European markets doesn’t tell us this; instead it showcases a narrow and inaccurate view of the threats to forests--which in the south especially--are largely owned by families and individuals like Earl.

The American Forest Foundation’s (AFF) recent report – Vanishing Pieces of the Puzzle – based on data from the U.S. Forest Service, highlights the tremendous benefits that Americans enjoy from family woodlands—from clean air and water, to wildlife habitat, space for recreation, and sustainable wood products we all use every day. It also highlights the significant threats to family-owned forests, with one of the largest being development pressures or converting forests to non-forest uses, not over-harvesting. Others include environmental threats that degrade forests like insects, diseases, and natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. Ironically, these threats can actually be addressed by the increased markets for sustainably managed wood, and by tax policy that encourages woodland owners to keep their forests as forests and manage them sustainably. 

What most don’t realize is that sustainable harvesting can help restore and sustain important forests – like bottomland hardwoods. Landowners harvest to keep their forests healthy, then sell to markets that want sustainably managed wood, which enables them to earn income to replant, restore and keep their forests as forests. This win-win, economic and environmental cycle was, just this month, supported in a study cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that states the increase in the wood pellet industry boosts forest growth and health, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and helps create rural jobs.

But woodland owners also depend on the current tax structure to keep this stewardship going.  Some landowners who harvest, only harvest a few times in their lifetime, yet still have annual expenses, property taxes and maintenance costs to consider. The current tax provisions allow family forest owners to treat the income from harvesting woods like the long-term investment it is, rather than as short-term income, which encourages landowners to reinvest in their land. Without this incentive and tax incentives that allow families to deduct their management and reforestation costs, the financial outlook for owning forests becomes harsh, and opportunities to sell their property to developers or turn it into other non-forest uses become very appealing.

Ultimately, these two crucial incentives enable woodland owners to finance practices that create forest resiliency.

To truly tackle the most pressing threats to America’s family forests, and aid in the restoration and maintenance of important forest types like bottomland hardwoods, we must continue to encourage markets for sustainably managed wood and maintain a tax structure that supports keeping forests as forests. In the coming months, as we see new proposals to modernize the tax code and as the debates about biomass for energy heat up, I hope that our members of Congress see that markets for sustainably managed wood are actually a benefit to forests, and in addition, support a tax treatment for family forest that allows them to can continue to provide All Americans with the benefits from these woods.

Martin is CEO of the American Forest Foundation, a non-profit that works on-the-ground with families, teachers, and elected officials to promote stewardship and protect our nation's forest heritage.