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Small Woodlots: Putting the Pieces Together

Posted: May 16, 2014

It is vitally important that small woodlot owners recognize the potential of their woods.

By Allyson Muth, Forest Stewardship Program Associate, Penn State Department of Ecosystem Science and Management

Natural resources professionals and those who provide educational resources to woodland owners are often guilty of alienating owners of small woodlots. These owners don’t see themselves as “forest landowners,” and so we miss opportunities to engage and help them understand the importance of their back woods to the larger ecological system. What we’ve learned, based on our surveys of landowners of all parcel sizes, is that there are vast numbers of owners who own small woodlots, and the acreage they hold, and by extension, the ecological services this land contributes, are integral to the sustainability of Penn’s Woods.

Pennsylvania has nearly 740,000 woodland owners making decisions on 11.5 million acres of woodlands, or 70% of the nearly 17 million acres of forestland in our state. Many of these owners (approximately 500,000) own ten acres of woodland or less (the average size for these small holdings is about 3 acres), but together they make decisions for one of every eight acres of our state’s private forests.

For both small and large woodlot owners, we’ve learned that beauty, scenery, wildlife, and privacy are primary reasons for owning woodland – regardless of the size of holding, owners recognize the same benefits.  While not surprising, it emphasizes the importance of finding ways to engage smaller woodlot owners to convey the importance of and their options for caring for their woods. While many of the small woodland parcels are likely part of a residence, these wooded acres contribute to backyard habitat, water quality, and woodland diversity, for example. Although these parcels seem small, cumulatively they represent much of our urban and community forests and provide many more public and individual values than just a setting for a home.

In many parts of our state, it is hard to find large intact parcels of woodlands. Over the years, larger properties are broken up into smaller chunks, and homes are often built on the land. Owning woodlands is desirable to many people; however, this process of parcelization – breaking up land into smaller parcels – leads to fragmentation – when contiguous habitat is broken up by roads, power lines, etc. – which impacts animal migration and the introduction of non-native species, both plant and animal.

We can’t write off the value of any sized piece of woodland. It’s easy to say that the large parcels are the more important. It’s easy to identify large parcel values to landowners, their contributions to ecosystem services (clean air, clean water, reduced overland flow, carbon sequestration), their potential for financial benefits, recreation, or wildlife habitat – things that are often highlighted when people think about forest values. But we can’t exclude these same ecological, economic, and social values that even the smallest wooded parcels provide to their owners and to the larger society and landscape.

In some areas, small wooded parcels are the sole remnants of the forest that used to occupy the site. These small woodlots can contain forest tree and herbaceous species that don’t do well in lawns. These woodlots are home to myriad animal and insect species. On the flip side, these small woodlots are sometimes introduction points for non-native species, brought in for ornamental purposes that escape into the woods and are allowed to spread more widely. For the most part, owners of smaller woodlots are less likely to reach out for assistance from natural resources professionals to better understand what’s happening in their woods, and options available to them to improve their care. The corollary to that is, unless a landowner is willing to pay out of pocket for the services of these professionals, it’s often not cost effective to engage professionals unless there is an economic profit motive.

So if we have many landowners with small woodlots who have a propensity for not reaching out to forestry professionals, how can we help them engage with their woods and recognize their stewardship efforts and contributions to the larger landscape? Personally, I believe it is vitally important that small woodlot owners recognize the potential of their woods.

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, speak. He noted the critical role that backyard woods can contribute to wildlife, particularly bird life, and the mass of insect life required to sustain breeding populations of birds. In his book and his talks, Dr. Tallamy sees smaller woodlot owners as key to conserving native plant and animal diversity and emphasizes the roles and responsibilities we all can play to sustain our natural heritage. Small woodlots are just as important as the larger.

If you are a small woodlot owner, I encourage you to educate yourself on what’s going on in your woods. Learn about the trees you own and care for. Learn about the wildlife that might call it home. Learn about the threats from pests, diseases, and invasive species that can compromise the health of your woods. And think about ways you can work to expand the good that your small woodlot provides to the surrounding landscape. Introduce more woods habitat into backyard spaces, reduce the amount of lawn you mow. It will benefit not only those wildlife species that call your land home, but also improve water quality, help keep homes cooler, and in many cases, improve your property’s financial value.

If you’re interested in learning more about the system that is your backyard woods, or how you can make more woods out of your lawn, The Woods in Your Backyard is a recent publication that describes the steps you can take to plan for, implement, and care for trees in your backyard. The guide is currently being revised, but the 2006 version is still available for $24 from PALS Publishing, or available for free as a PDF. A simple Google search will quickly get you there.