Wildfires and public lands aren't America's only forestry problem

Wildfires and public lands aren't America's only forestry problem
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Wildfires and contentious public land policy in the American West, sparking debate about climate change and forest management practices on public timberlands, seem to be the only forestry issues in the news. This suggests that problems with America’s forests are centered on federal land ownerships. Actually, forests owned by average folks are more likely to be a future problem. Lots of regular people own forests. These are called family forests and their future is important for the clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and timber they produce.                    

The majority of the nation’s forests (443 million of 766 million acres) are in private ownership. Nearly two-thirds of that private forest is owned by families and individuals, mostly in small holdings. These became the family forests and the nation’s largest forest ownership group (owning 38 percent of forest, while the feds own only 31 percent).

Over the last 20 years, the number of family forest owners increased by over 1 million (to nearly 11 million). Considering just owners with more than 10 acres (eliminating the large backyards), average tract size of a family forest is 66 acres. That’s small by forestry standards.

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At the time of the nation’s settlement, just over 1 billion acres was forested; today it is about three-quarters of that. This forest area has remained relatively stable over the past century.  Shifts in land use have helped maintain that stability; population growth and urban development ensure that won’t continue indefinitely.

Family forests face an insidious threat from forest parcelization that results from forest holdings being broken into smaller parcels. Parcelization occurs first when a change in ownership results in a large forest property being subdivided into smaller properties. For example, a 3,000-acre property being bequeathed to three heirs might result in three 1,000-acre properties. If the heirs take no further action, then the forest remains intact. However, say the middle property is developed into a subdivision. The tract is fragmented then, causing all kinds of negative ecological changes, especially impacting wildlife populations and water quality. 

The public federal forests used to produce timber; now, due to changes in forest management and pressure from environmental groups, they mainly seem to produce wildfires, at least in the West. About 89 percent of timber removals come from the private forests and they are crucial to our timber supply.

Parcelization will gradually reduce the small family forests to even smaller holdings, causing huge management problems. Different forest owners often have different management objectives. That 3,000-acre example tract might have been all managed for, say, wildlife habitat. Now the thirds might each be managed for timber production, recreation and wildlife, leading to a complex and dysfunctional management pattern over the divided forest.    

This will affect the nation’s timber supply. Owners who manage for timber production have financial goals and require efficient operations. Larger forest holdings offer economies of scale. It is much cheaper on a per acre basis to reforest, manage or harvest larger forest holdings. Smaller forests result in less timber entering the economy.  

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Family forest owners with larger forest holdings tend to be more active managers, more likely to be produce timber as a primary objective, manage under forest sustainability certification programs, and, most importantly, to have a forest management plan and to receive professional forest management advice.

Forest policy can help reduce the impact. Forest taxation is a crucial tool. How timber is taxed as income affects the attractiveness of managing a forest. Current use valuation of forestland, where it is valued as a productive forest and not for its development potential, is a power incentive to keep land growing trees. Conservation easements protect some forests. Educating forest owners in proper estate planning can see that forests are held for generations. Forest owner cooperatives that group small tracts together to gain economies of scale have been tried. There is no shortage of policy tools. 

Family forests are an essential component of the country’s natural resource foundation. Ecosystem services they produce, like water quality, are taken for granted. Whole industries depend on them for raw materials. People recreate in them and wildlife live in them. The federal forests may be burning and grab the attention, but the results of parcelization are more likely to occur in your own backyard.      

Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University in South Carolina.