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The Private Landowners of Penn’s Woods

Posted: April 24, 2014

Living in Pennsylvania where you can see trees from nearly every point in the landscape, it is easy to become complacent about what trees mean to you.

Pennsylvania is home to many things including about 12.5 million people of whom 740,000  are woodland owners, 16.6 million acres of forest of which 71% is privately owned, and 42 billion trees growing in our woodlands. Now, most of those woodland trees are small; the USDA Forest Service estimates there are about 33.8 billion seedlings less than an inch in diameter or about 2,500 trees per acre of woodland. Ignoring the seedlings, there are nearly 500 trees an inch or larger in diameter per acre. Truly Pennsylvania lives up to its name, which is literally Penn’s Woods.

Those numbers paint a picture of Penn’s Woods that only a number cruncher can truly enjoy. Most people don’t get really excited about describing woodlands by number of trees per acre. Rather, they build connections to woods and trees in different ways. However, living in Pennsylvania where you can see trees from nearly every point in the landscape, it is easy to become complacent about what trees mean to you.

If you think about it, trees and woods are likely part of who you are. In a recent national study, we talked with groups of people about trees and woodlands in their lives. We purposefully sought out diverse opinions by talking to a breadth of people from different ethnic, cultural, urban vs. rural, age, and economic segments. There was a common thread – people considered forests important for many reasons including spiritual or intrinsic values, physical or psychological health benefits, quality of life, aesthetics, tranquility, watching and enjoying wildlife, wilderness experience, and relaxation. There were differences among some of the groups, but clearly we learned that people have multiple concerns about forests and their future.

Closer to home, we have conducted several studies, most recently in 2010, to learn more about our state’s 740,000 woodland owners (we did not talk to them all, but we had a large sample). In this study, we defined woodlands as an acre or larger, with a minimum width of 120 feet, and not maintained as lawn. Using this definition, which comes from the USDA Forest Service, we learned that about 64% (470,000) of Pennsylvania’s woodland owners hold less than 10 acres of woods, and another 15% (111,000) own between 10 and 19 acres. Together, though, these two ownership classes hold about 25% of the state’s privately held woodlands – 2.75 million acres. This all means that about 155,000 larger owners hold the remaining 8.25 million acres of private woodlands, which averages to 53 acres each.

In Pennsylvania, why do people own woodlands? This was a fundamental question for this study. To answer this question, we first asked study participants to select, from a list of reasons, the “very important” and “important” reasons for owning woodlands. The number one reason was wildlife, not necessarily for hunting, but for watching as well. Close behind was solitude or simply the protection and comfort woods provide – the idea of getting away. Not surprisingly, given the large number of small ownerships, many respondents held woodlands because it came with their home – think large lots in suburbia.

Pressed a bit harder, respondents were asked to look at those items they chose as important from the reasons for owning list and to pick the most important. Solitude was the most important reason given by 18% of the owners who owned about 12% of the woodlands – clearly this reason resonates with owners of smaller parcels. Second in the listing was enjoyment – the idea of owning land and all that it brings with it (17% of owners and 18% of the land). Third was hunting (12% of owners and 18% of the woodlands). Incidental came in fourth (meaning the woodland came with their home) representing 12% of the owner and 6% of the woodlands; again, the small owners fell into this group. Fifth was wildlife and since hunting was already listed, this response likely reflected the watchable wildlife interests with 12% of the owners and 8% of the woodlands. Surprisingly, the sixth response by owners was an estate to pass on to others, which represented 6% of the owners and about 11% of the woodlands. Most surprising of all was interest in timber for sale, which was chosen by less than 2% of the owners representing about 5% of the woodlands.

People own woodlands for a blend of many reasons. While those reasons might be incidental to where they live, most people celebrate the trees on their land. They might not check on them daily or wonder about their health constantly, but they do value the benefits they provide. In the 2010 landowner study, we wanted to learn how people thought about the future of their woodlands – beyond their ownership – when they passed it to the next generation or owner, if that was possible. Interestingly, 80% of the owners expressed interest in keeping their land in the family. They wanted one or more of their children to have the land, to become the next steward. At the same time we learned that nearly 60% of today’s woodland owners in Pennsylvania had done nothing to engage the next generation in discussions about the land nor had they taken steps to make their intentions a reality.

To ensure that we have healthy productive forests and woodlands for tomorrow it is essential that we monitor their current health and condition. Yes, we have 42 billion trees in Pennsylvania, which is an interesting statistic. Some large percentage of those trees is owned by 740,000 individuals and families who have assumed a stewardship responsibility for their care and maintenance. Educate yourself about how to care for your woodlands, so that it’s there for those who come after, be they your family or the next owner. Contact Penn State Natural Resources Extension to inquire about free publications, or visit our website to see what’s available to help you learn more about your woodlands.

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 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.