Sustainability Climate Change

The families who control the future of America’s forests

a photo of pine trees in Montana

Story at a glance

  • A surprising amount of U.S. forestland is owned by individuals.
  • Coordinating management plans is challenging with so many owners.
  • But it’s worth it: there is a lot that small forest owners can do to make sure their land benefits wildlife and the environment.

Vast swathes of American forests are owned by families — private individuals who have bought or perhaps inherited a personal patch of woodland where they can hunt, chop or wander in peace. Yet, in owning areas of forests, these families have also bought a stake in one of the greatest challenges of our time: tackling climate change.

As temperatures rise, America’s temperate forests will face increasingly frequent and severe disturbances from fire, insect outbreaks, drought, and invasive species — and could eventually die away into other kinds of ecosystems, if certain tipping points are crossed.

“If we don’t do anything at all, I think we’re going to see a lot of mortality. A lot of trees will die,” says Eli Sagor, a professor at the Cloquet Forestry Center at the University of Minnesota.

Active forest management can prevent — or at least stall — some of the worst impacts of climate change. This means anything from removing trees to improve forest health to eradicating invasive species. Whether this is done successfully has repercussions for people across the nation: forests provide clean air, wildlife habitats, beautiful scenery, carbon storage and more.

In practice, this means that the 10.4 million families who own 36 percent of America’s forested land shoulder a lot of responsibility for the country’s ability to tackle climate change — whether they want to or not. For forestry professionals working to boost the resilience of these landscapes, the presence of a diverse group, united only by the fact that they own some trees, represents both an obstacle and an opportunity.

“The biggest challenge is that family forest owners have relatively small parcels compared to publicly owned national forests, so you need an organized effort across many owners, which is difficult to implement,” says Jennifer Costanza, assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

A patchwork of owners

Whereas publicly owned forests will have experienced forestry professionals making large-scale management plans — the largest forest in the U.S., Alaska’s Tongass, covers more than 17 million acres — it is harder to create a comprehensive and coordinated approach when the forestland is divided between private individuals.

Unfriendly neighbors, for instance, can thwart the best intentions of forest owners. In one study on invasive species, an Indiana couple was wandering around their forest and moaning about the amount of invasive multiflora rose on their land, despite their best efforts to get rid of it. As they approached the fence, they noticed that the next-door property was overrun by the plant: their own management efforts had been essentially futile.

Yet knocking on the neighbors’ door and asking them to remove their invasive roses may be a surprisingly difficult task among a community which tends to value its personal space, says Mysha Clarke, a postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University, who has been researching the challenges of invasive species management in family-owned forests.

“Privacy is one of the key reasons why landowners in Indiana own forest property, so initiating collective action — asking the neighbors to remove invasives — can be seen as an invasion of privacy,” says Clarke. Some landowners, meanwhile, said they didn’t have enough time or knowledge to manage invasive species on their land; others lacked financial resources or were too old.

Better stewards

Nonetheless, a better understanding of these obstacles means that academics and non-governmental organizations are becoming better equipped at reaching out to family forest owners and helping them to become better stewards of their land.

This includes more targeted methods of communication, such as using newspapers or the internet, rather than relying on workshops that may dissuade time-strapped landowners from taking an interest. Surveys carried out by Clarke suggested that many people would be in favor of a non-profit organization that could act as a liaison within the community, so that the landowners themselves could avoid having to make that awkward call to a neighbor.

Despite the logistical challenges, the diverse ownership of U.S. forests may also be an advantage when it comes to adapting to climate change, as it offers room for experimentation.

“One of the core principles of managing under uncertain conditions is to hedge your bets. Having a large number of small landowners basically ensures that’s going to happen, because it’s a very diverse population,” says Sagor. “Some are going to be managing their woods very actively — that might include working hard to eradicate invasive species or managing for certain kinds of wildlife — and all of those different actions are sure to produce different outcomes across the landscape.”

Evidence suggests that forest management will be worth the effort. The potential for family forest owners to have a meaningful impact on the climate resilience of these ecosystems may be higher than previously thought.

During a project to evaluate the locations of family forests, Costanza was surprised to learn that many of these landscapes were not, as she had supposed, largely dominated by pockets of forest fragmented by human development, but often formed unbroken swathes of woodland. These could turn out to be vital habitats as temperatures rise, giving forest species the space they need to migrate northwards towards cooler climes.

“It suggests real opportunities,” says Costanza. “We can try to sustain and maintain the unfragmented forest that we have, which I think is really great news.”