SIREN — More than half of the 816 million acres of forestland in the U.S. is privately held. Of that, 61 percent is owned by family forest landowners, making them the largest forestland ownership group in the U.S.

“That often surprises people, particularly the general public,” Stephanie Snyder of the U.S. Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn., told those attending the St. Croix Forestry Conference late last month in Siren. “There is a perception that the federal government is the largest ownership group.”

It stands to reason, then, that the decisions family forest owners make about stewardship, use and maintenance of their woods has far-reaching implications.

Snyder urges foresters to strive to work more closely with family forest owners, especially as about 15 percent of ownerships, or 73,000 nationwide, are likely to change hands in the next five years. Family forest owners, on average, are in their 60s.

“Given their dominance of ownership on the landscape, they’re a really important group to understand,” Snyder said. “We can’t accomplish our landscape goals if we can’t encourage family forest owners to participate.”

Family forest owners own 263 million acres, or 35 percent, of all forested land in the U.S. Snyder said their reasons for owning wooded land vary, including hunting, as a retreat or as part of a family legacy. Some people inherited their land or bought it as a second home site.

But “regardless of why family forest owners own their land ... they tend to be very passionate about their land and about being a family forest owner,” she said, adding that many people take great pride in their woods.

These areas also are important to society as a whole, she said, because of general forest-based benefits such as water purification, so it’s critical that those who work with family forest owners understand their values, goals and practices.

Through surveys, the Family Forest Research Center compiles data on this critical segment of forest ownership to help others better understand family forest owners, Snyder said. The most recent survey took place a few years ago.

Snyder said forestland ownership varies throughout the U.S. In the West, much of the land is federally owned, while in the eastern U.S., there’s more corporate ownership. In the Upper Midwest, ownership is a mix, but family owners are very prevalent, especially in Wisconsin.

“That intermix makes for challenging and interesting efforts to try to manage forestlands,” she said.

Snyder said the U.S. Forest Service has emphasized an “all lands” approach for forest management, and, because of their dominance on the landscape, it’s key that family forestland owners are on board.

According to the most recent national woodland owner survey, Wisconsin has more than 9 million forested acres with 183,000 ownerships and a mean size of 48 acres. More than 70 percent of family forest owners in the Great Lakes states own 30 percent of the total forest area, in holding sizes ranging from 10 to 49 acres.

“There are a lot of ownerships with small- to medium-size holdings,” Snyder said, adding that as land is left to heirs, more multi-ownership situations are created.

Habitat a priority

Almost 90 percent of family forest owners surveyed listed a desire to preserve wildlife habitat as their top reason for owning wooded land, followed by the beauty/scenery, privacy and a desire to help protect nature.

Interestingly, while most owners rank wildlife habitat high, not many of them are doing any habitat improvement work on their property, Snyder said, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between what people value and what they are doing.

“Some may not know what to do or think there’s not much they have to do. It always stands out to me as a bit of a mismatch,” she said.

The harvest of timber products ranked relatively low, important to only 18 percent of owners in the Lakes states.

“Typically, they’re not interested in commercial harvesting,” Snyder said. “Part of that is a capacity issue.”

Recreation such as hunting, bird-watching, riding all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiling was the most commonly reported activity on family-owned forestland. Cutting trees for personal use such as firewood came in second.

Snyder said the rates of participation in forestry programs are low among family forest owners, with only 17 percent indicating that they sought professional advice about their wooded land in the past five years. Most don’t have any personal contact with professional foresters, she said.

Fifteen percent said they have a forest management plan in place, she said, adding that this is “the golden ticket” to getting landowners engaged in the future of their woods, but “we have a long way to go.”

Snyder said only 9 percent participate in their state forest property tax program, and about 7 percent use cost-sharing programs. These low rates could be due to limited awareness or a dislike of the requirements, but they also could be the result of a mistrust of government and desire to be autonomous.

Those surveyed indicated that they plan to engage in two main activities on their forested land — cutting trees for personal use and projects to improve wildlife habitat. More than 80 percent of those who had treated for invasive plants like garlic mustard in the past planned to do so again. Insects such as gypsy moths are another issue, she said, and cross-boundary collaboration should be promoted as a way to control both invasive plants and pests.

Snyder said property taxes are the No. 1 worry of those surveyed, with more than 80 percent expressing concern. However, only 9 percent participate in their state’s forest property tax program.

Other top concerns are keeping the land intact and parcelization, which often is a forerunner for development, along with trespassing and vandalism — not surprising considering that many family forest owners are absentee landowners, she said.

Respondents said their biggest needs in the future include more favorable forest property taxes; more than 60 percent indicated that this would be beneficial.

“This may suggest people are looking for other ways to alleviate their tax burden than participating in current forest property tax programs,” Snyder said.

They also would like to see more advice on managed forest management and land transfer. Snyder said the challenge is turning that information into action, as, in general, there’s not a lot of active management taking place on family forestland.

As family forest owners age, transition of ownership becomes a concern, and there’s a growing need for more education about succession and estate planning. Many have a strong desire to maintain their forestland, according to Snyder. While half of those surveyed said they plan to pass their woods down to their children, many don’t know what will happen to it.

Regardless, she said, “there will be a new segment of woodland owners in the coming decade.”

The St. Croix River Association’s “My St. Croix Woods” program provides woodland owners throughout the watershed with resources, opportunities and professional connections to make better informed decisions about their land. For more information, visit www.mystcroixwoods.org.

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