Creating a Woods Mission: Giving Voice to the Trees
Posted: February 11, 2016
In working with landowners across the state, the staff of The Center for Private Forests at Penn State spend a lot of time discussing the need for forest legacy planning. Forest legacy planning is simply extending the concept of estate planning to include a plan for woodland property to be transferred and cared for by a future owner—whether a family heir or an unrelated owner. This planning is important because we know that harvests occur and/or land is parcelized, or subdivided, most often at the time when it changes hands, either within families or outside. Our research has found that 80% of landowners want their woods to stay in the family, yet only 21% have plans to create legal structures that will protect the working woods and facilitate the transfer of land between owners. Fewer still have taken concrete action.
We also know that 75% of the current woodland owners got their land by purchase rather than inheritance. If percentages buying versus inheriting have stayed consistent between generations of landowners, this means that a lot of landowners’ plans for the woods remaining in the family have failed.
Studies cite family communication as one of the major barriers to planning. Discussing what happens when the current owner is no longer alive can be difficult for family members. Current owners choose not to engage their heirs in conversation to keep family harmony or because assumptions are made about potential heirs’ interest in the woods (“What if they don’t want it?” or “I’m sure they know how I want the land to be cared for”). Believe it or not, not all families have excellent intergenerational communications!
When we talk about legacy planning, estate planning, or succession planning, we spend a lot of time talking about communications. Many organizations have created tools to facilitate learning about family members’ values around the woods. There are lots of resources available to landowners who’ve made decisions to delve into legacy planning (just Google “Forestry Legacy Planning” or “Woodland Legacy Planning” to find some). There are a range of legal tools people can use to pass on land, but understanding those options require a willingness to move beyond the decision to make a plan. All the tools and resources out there require a willingness to start the process, a commitment to making a plan, and communications with those you hope will come after you.
If one of the biggest hurdles for legacy planning for those who wish to keep the land in their family is family communications, how do you take an understanding your hopes and intentions for your woodland and turn them into a statement of commitment and action? If family communications are not easy, it might require a more formal approach to ensure smooth family conversations. Most businesses, organizations, and other entities develop mission statements to guide their work, to provide a goal and future aspiration, and to give those working within the group an understanding of who they are and what they aim. The same process of creating a mission statement might help you plan for the future of your woods. How might you best communicate the values and aspirations you have for the woods now and for future owners? What if you gave those voices a resonant message that all could support and use to plan for the future of the land–a Woods Mission?
What would your Woods Mission sound like? It would likely include words like “protect,” “use,” “conserve,” “sustain.” It would have values that resonate with you and your family, like “wildlife,” “beauty,” “recreation,” “forest products,” “health,” “privacy.” It would likely include words indicating a future that looks even better than the current condition, like “improve,” “enhance,” “create.”
What words give voice to your woods? What words represent values and hopes you hold and those you hope to come after you hold? What words represent a way of talking about the woods that doesn’t necessarily impose upon family dynamics, but instead represent expectations and goals that all can fully support?
Being a woodland owner is difficult work. Being caretakers of a resource that provides benefits not just to you and yours, but to the larger society as well, carries responsibility that many are willing to shoulder. Caring well for the woods includes planning for its future. Despite the difficulties often accompanying future planning processes, reflect on what you hope will happen to the land after you. Include the voices and values of those you hope will become the next caretakers of the land. Be clear and collaborative about those hopes. Leave no room for assumptions or misunderstandings. Create with your heirs a message to embrace and then support their journey to becoming caretakers of the woods. The process starts with the current owners. Give voice to that work by developing your Woods Mission.