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Pennsylvania Private Forest Landowners and Future Plans

Posted: November 26, 2013

Forest stewardship is wisely caring for and using forest resources to ensure their health and productivity for years to come. Stewardship challenges us to look beyond our immediate personal needs so we can leave a lasting forest legacy for future generations. From a forest landowner study undertaken by researchers in Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management in 2010, we learned about Pennsylvania woodland owner’s future plans.

Forest stewardship is wisely caring for and using forest resources to ensure their health and productivity for years to come. Stewardship challenges us to look beyond our immediate personal needs so we can leave a lasting forest legacy for future generations. Pennsylvania has an estimated 738,000 private forest owners who together make stewardship decisions on about 11.5 million acres, or about 71% of all the state’s 16.8 million acres of forestland. Granted many of these current owners have small parcels; an estimated 500,000 individual woodlots are smaller than 10 acres, averaging just less than 3 acres. Relatively few, about 25,000 woodlots, are 100 acres or larger. Nonetheless, together these owners make decisions about one out of every eight acres of our state’s private forests.


On average our state’s woodlot owners hold their land about eighteen years, which is not quite a generation. When woodlands change hands at the end of an ownership, there are often direct decisions made that affect many of the values these lands provide to the owners and to society. Often the current owner harvests timber prior to selling to gain the maximum value out of their land. The next owners harvest timber to recoup the cost of the purchase. Those who inherit harvest trees or subdivide and/or sell all or part of the woodland to pay estate or inheritance taxes, or because they’re just not interested in being forest landowners. This is not to say that harvesting is bad; rather, it should be part of a longer term plan and not be tied to ownership change processes where connections to the land are severed or formed. 


From a forest landowner study undertaken by researchers in Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management in 2010, we learned about Pennsylvania woodland owner’s future plans. Fourteen percent plan to sell their forestland “as is.” Twelve percent plan to establish trusts that will pass their forestland to their families. Nine percent plan to put conservation easements on their forestland to prevent future development, and nine percent plan to subdivide and sell off part of their property. Fifty-seven percent of forest landowners say it is important to them that their forestlands remain in the family. Yet very few are taking concrete action now to make that transfer to the family happen with ease.


The study began by interviewing landowners to learn about how they decided to: 1) subdivide and sell their lands, 2) put a conservation easement on their land, or 3) what landowners are thinking about and planning for when they have not yet formed a plan about the future of their forestland. In the second part of the study they surveyed forest owners in thirty-five counties to learn more generally about their plans for their woodlands.  


From the interviews, the researchers learned that each group had different perceptions of their relationship to the land. For some landowners conversations about the land had an attachment or connection theme. For others the land was an enabling entity -- having it, selling off part of it, allowed them do things important for them. For landowners who had subdivided and sold part of their forestland they reflected on the influence of outsiders on that decision, for example family members or fulfilling obligations. They also perceived they had no alternative to subdividing and selling. It was the fastest and easiest way to a desired or necessary end result. For those who had placed an easement on their land, their conversations about the decision included strong elements of control. They wanted to influence what happened in the future on that land and advocated for its continued conservation. Those who had yet to take concrete action talked about the unknown -- not wanting to tie up the land as both a resource and an asset, but still wanting to be good land stewards. 


Bottom line, the study learned that the process of deciding about the future of forests is incredibly complex, and that many decisions about the future of the forestland are not economic driven. Emotions play a large role in the decision-making process and, where families are involved, those family dynamics strongly influence what happens next.


If you are woodland owner, what do you do? Clearly there is not a one-size fits all solution, because everyone’s situation, relationship to the land, and family dynamics are different. Landowners can start the process by having conversations now with each other, with heirs, if they’re present, with conservation organizations, if that’s a desired end goal. Being a good steward of the land means caring for and wisely using the land now, but always with an eye towards the future -- not compromising future generations of owners’ abilities to care for and wisely use the resource as well.


If you are ready to begin considering the future of your forestland but don’t know where to start, Penn State Natural Resources Extension has created some materials – resources guides, conversation starters, and other tools to help you think through your own vision and begin to engage those you hope to come after you. Visit extension.psu.edu/legacy to learn more.


The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 234 9473 (toll free), send an email to RNRext@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Natural Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.