Is private forestland at risk as owners age?

A recent report on NPR’s market place about family forests in the United States caught my ear. It argued that 2016 was shaping up to be a big year for sales of family-owned forests face.  This has been a common refrain in the almost 20 years I have been working on forestry issues in California.  But much of the report did not ring true to me – at least not here in California.

First it suggested that 2016 may turn out to be a big year for the sale of private forest land. And second, that the biggest threat was that family forests would be sold to industrial owners who clear cut the forest and ship the logs overseas for the export market.

Every year I have heard the refrain that this year will be the year when the older generation dies and the forest land they assembled is sold off. It’s certainly true that people age, but I’m not convinced that 2016 is shaping up to be any worse than 2006, or 1996.  The sad truth is that we lose many acres of productive forest land to other uses every year.

Second, I have seen little evidence that the primary “risk” is that the forest will be purchased by an industrial owner who will turn around, clear-cut the trees, and ship them overseas.  Unfortunately this continues the outdated narrative that “forestry” is bad and anything else is “good.”  In my experience, the larger industrial owners are unlikely to purchase smaller family forests as the values tend to be driven by real estate and hence relatively high. And even if they did, they manage them with a long-term perspective for their wood and forest values.

By far and away the primary risk today is that the forest will be broken up and sold off as individual parcels for home sites. From a conservation and forestry management perspective, this is a disaster. Not only are smaller parcels harder to manage for wood production, they also fragment the landscape for wildlife as homes and people invade what was once wildlife habitat.

Fortunately, landowners these days are faced with many smart options to protect their forest land and handle complex estate planning needs. In California there’s a growing trend for landowners to make use of conservation easements to protect the land against fragmentation and aggressive timbering, while allowing it’s continued productive use as timberland, and reducing the burden of estate taxes on the family.

The final irony in the news report was the owner they interviewed planned to build small cabins around the property for his kids. While I appreciate the sentiment of connecting the kids to the forestland, these cabins introduce their own disruption and may make it that much harder to manage the land for its forest and wildlife values in the future.

So why should any of this matter to the average American? I’ll just take California as that’s the landscape I know the best. California has 33 million acres of forestland. Of this, some 9 million is owned and managed by private families – compared to 5 million by the large industrial owners.  This forestland gives us so much everyday. It cleans our air. Stores carbon dioxide that is driving climate change. Is the source of much of our clean water. Provides the wood we use to build our homes.  And of course, it’s also a source of inspiration.

Protecting our forestland is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

California’s Private Forestland is at Risk of conversation.



2 thoughts on “Is private forestland at risk as owners age?”

  1. Ruskin, that was a very thought provoking article!!! More people need to really understand the issues that you raise. I am going to save a copy of it, and share it with my friends, especially friends out in California. Thank you so much for all you do to save our gorgeous redwoods!!! Talk about “Nature’s Cathedral”.

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