Owning or Holding Woodlands

Posted: June 26, 2017

Land is one of those things we “own” that will extend beyond us. We can use it carefully and, in the process, pass forward nearly all of its value. Alternatively, we can abuse land and the resources it provides and leave those who come after us with something of little value.

Everyone owns stuff. Our homes are full of things. Things we buy. Things people give us. Interestingly, though, most of the things we own have a limited useful life. Almost everything we use wears out. Although, sometimes, we have something of value we inherited and continue to treasure – protect or steward – to pass forward to someone who will come after us.

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our children."
Ancient Native American Proverb

Land is one of those things we “own” that will extend beyond us. We can use it carefully and, in the process, pass forward nearly all of its value. Alternatively, we can abuse land and the resources it provides and leave those who come after us with something of little value. We have the capacity to look forward beyond our needs and wants to those who will depend on those same resources in their lives. Land and many of the Earth’s natural resources are ultimately finite; when we have consumed them, they are gone. We cannot easily make more or find substitutions. Degraded land, parched land, disturbed land does not renew quickly.

For more than four decades, I have worked with and studied private woodland owners –to help them steward the land by making good decisions about its care and management. My wife and I are among the nearly 750,000 woodland owners in Pennsylvania who link to the land through ownership of at least one acre of trees. Based on statistics alone, about one in six Pennsylvania households owns woodlands. But, do we really “own” the land?

Nearly 20 years ago, I was fortunate to spend time in Australia working with farmers and tree growers. These people all understood their connection to the land and they were striving to learn how to become better caretakers by repairing what they or previous generations had done to degrade the land. Without exception, the people I met understood and articulated that they had a duty to those who would next work the land. They struggled with the Western idea of owning land – they were “land holders.” I like that perspective.

Today, for the first time human history, more people live in cities of more than a million people than live in less urban or rural places. As a result, our connections to the land and the values it provides to support ecological functions are eroding. Increasingly, understanding that we depend on the land for our very existence is almost a foreign construct. We appreciate connections to electricity more than we appreciate our connection to and dependence on nature. Today, I believe that our connections to the past and future also erode. We need to understand that the decisions we make about land, woods, and water extend across both space and time.

"We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."
Chief Seattle

It seems that woodland owners I meet are increasingly warming to the idea that they are really caretakers of their land. They accept the idea that stewarding the land involves not just working to improve its health and well-being now, but also involves planning for who and what comes after their tenure. They are asking questions about how they can ensure that someone who cares for the land will hold it in the future and will pass it forward across generations. If you hold land or woodlands and have had thoughts about how to ensure its continued stewardship for future generations, Pennsylvania has tools and resources to help develop a plan to protect its value for tomorrow. Back in 2001, the state’s legislature passed the Conservation and Preservation Easements Act (Act 29 of 2001), which was the enabling legislation for conservation easements in the state (prior to 2001, the Agricultural Area Security Law allowed for agricultural conservation easements). A conservation easement allows landowners to sell or donate their right to develop the land to a conservation organization. The removal of this right follows the deed and all future owners are held to the same restriction – no development. To learn more about this landmark legislation, visit the website and search the Library for Act 29.

Maybe a conservation easement is not the right tool for you and your vision for land. There are other options relating to developing an estate or succession plan that may allow you to help guide future decisions about the stewardship of the property. Planning an estate that will protect the important resources you hold today takes time. To learn more about how you can look into the future to protect land related resources, visit the Center for Private Forests’ legacy website.

Nearly 50 years ago, people were concerned about the future of clean air and clear water. At that time, a generation was stepping up and advocating for the environment. The need to do that is no less important today when some people have a short vision of our relationship to our land and its natural resources. If we continue to consume our resources for only our own economic gain, without thinking of the future, what will we learn?

"Only when the last tree is cut; only when the last river is polluted; only when the last fish is caught; only then will they realize that you cannot eat money."
Cree Indian Proverb

Contact Information

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