Pennsylvania's Working Forests: Showing Response-Ability

Posted: September 15, 2014

"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit." - Nelson Henderson
Figure 1: Pennsylvania private forests by percent private forest land owners and private forest land in 2010. The inset depicts number of owners, average ownership size, and percent of private forests held in parcels of less than 20 acres in size.

Figure 1: Pennsylvania private forests by percent private forest land owners and private forest land in 2010. The inset depicts number of owners, average ownership size, and percent of private forests held in parcels of less than 20 acres in size.

Pennsylvania’s woodlands, public and private, cover nearly 60 percent of the state or nearly 17 million acres; of these acres, 7 of 10 are in private ownership (about 11.5 million acres) and about 800,000 acres are held by forest industry.

US Forest Service inventory and assessment data over the past 50 years shows that the amount of forest land (public and private) in Pennsylvania has remained relatively stable at about 17 million acres. This is good and we can celebrate it; however, that is only part of the story. Take a minute and study Figure 1, which depicts private forest ownership in 2010. First, recognize that the categories on the X-axis are not equal; it compares lots of small ownerships to rather few large ownerships in larger size brackets. In reality, the distribution tails off without the humps. Second, note that we have only about 3 percent of our ownerships in parcels holdings larger than 100 acres, which accounts for about 35 percent of the private forests, which is comforting, but it is only about 25,000 ownerships. Uncomfortable, however, is the realization that many of our larger private forest ownerships are too frequently parcelized or broken into smaller sizes and moving toward the left side of this graph.

Next, focus on the inset box, which shows findings from three ownership studies covering about 30 years. The first two, 1980 and 1993, are data from the US Forest Service, and 2010 is the Penn State study cited earlier. In 30 years, Pennsylvania has seen an increase of about 320,000 private forest landowners, which has dropped our average ownership by 11 acres and greatly increased the number of small ownerships of less than 20 acres. In those 30 years, we have gained 110,000 new woodland owners every decade or 11,000 every year! Other work by Penn State researchers suggests the US Forest Service estimates from 30 years ago may have been high; if true, the increase in numbers of private forest landowners has been even greater.

We have been lucky that agricultural abandonment in the northern tier and southwestern counties have offset forest loss to development, which has kept the amount of forest land constant for nearly 50 years. However, the shift in ownership sizes does not bode well for working forests, forest that provide benefits for all Pennsylvanians to enjoy and which contribute to our quality of life.

Sometime in the past 20 years or so the idea of working forests emerged in the forestry lexicon. Some interpret it to mean forests provide only traditional wood products; others link it to sustainability – providing what we need today and retaining options to provide similar values to future generations. Those values are diverse and they are not solely economic. Forests provide much more than wood, they also contribute to social and ecological well-being. Our forests are habitat that wildlife depends on; they are the filters that clean our air and water; they are where we recreate and vacation; they are backdrops to our communities.

This brings us to the linkage between working forests and the need to consider “response-ability.” If we are to retain working forest and all the benefits they provide, we have to think hard about how we pass forests forward to the next generation and generations beyond. Can we afford to divide our forested landscape into smaller and smaller parcels at the rate of 11,000 every year? What does this mean to our ability to ensure quality water, wood products, viable wildlife habitat, healthy forests, and management options to the future?

Every day, we are losing private forest land to development. Most of these acres are, for all practical purposes, lost forever – they will no longer produce wood products, provide wildlife habitat, clean our air or our water. We have the ability to respond to threats to our forested landscape. Some people might believe the appropriate response is to enact rules and regulations that take away the owner’s ability to manage and care for the land. Their idea is to “preserve” the forest, to put it in a jar, so to speak, and keep it from changing. Lacking the ability to care for the land, to address its health and renewal by careful stewardship often condemns the land to the future they are trying to avoid. Forced to relinquish the ability to use the land, owners divide, sell, or allow the forest to decline in health and vigor. No one wins in this scenario.

Alternatively, we have the ability to celebrate the benefits we all receive from our privately owned forests. We should not look at those wooded patches and sylvan hills as places that can become future house lots, but rather places that improve our quality of life. We should encourage every private woodland owner, whether they own 1 or 1,000 acres, to be good stewards of their resource with the intent of passing a healthy forest forward to the next generation and the many more who will benefit from our good decisions today to encourage owners to care for the land. We need to help them conserve their land. We have the ability to respond to the changing nature of our landscape.

In our landowner studies we have learned that between 53% and 80% of our private landowners hope to pass their land onto their children or other heirs. Unfortunately, the vast majority want to give it to more than one heir. In the end, this will like lead to more land division. Keeping forests working means making some tough decisions now. Stewardship and sustainability demand thinking long term about caring for forests.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources
Phone: 814-863-0402