Hands of a forest field worker

Latest survey invites a closer look at what family forest landowners are after

By Marvin Brown | This blog is a cross-post and will appear in the Winter 2022 edition of the National Woodlands Magazine.

A core mission  of all state forestry agencies is to provide assistance to family forest landowners. Understanding who these individuals are and why they own their property is key to offering the right kind of assistance. For over 60 years, periodic surveys of America’s woodland owners have helped state foresters provide the customized technical assistance forest landowners rely on. The most recent study was published earlier this year.

With the latest survey, we know nationwide there are about 3.7 million forested parcels of 10 acres or more in size owned by non-industrial private interests, such as families and individuals. Together, these parcels total to 253 million acres; that’s over 30% of all the forestland in the United States. Only 11% of these properties have written forest management plans and only 18% of their owners have received advice from a resource professional. In fact, 26% indicated that they do not want any assistance or information and 25% have never conducted any kind of management on their land.

Most say their primary objectives for their woodlands include wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and recreation. Just 10% of private woodland owners say their main reason for owning land is timber production. It’s very understandable that many people own woodlands to enjoy them and not necessarily to make money. The fact is, though, that carefully planned timber sales can help you achieve those other objectives. Harvests can provide funds to pay for trail improvements and wildlife habitat enhancements all while bolstering overall forest health and resiliency.

forestry field worker

Having been a forester for over 40 years, I have some bias, but I wouldn’t recommend having a timber sale without considering the advice of a professional. They can help you get maximum return while ensuring that your woodland is managed to meet your needs from your property going forward. Still, if engaging a forester isn’t of interest, there are some basic tenets you can follow on your own.

For example, having a wide range of tree ages serves a greater diversity of wildlife. Ruffed grouse utilize the thick, emergent growth fueled by openings in a forest’s canopy following a harvest. Squirrels and woodpeckers, on the other hand, like older trees that host insects and produce nuts. Deer thrive on a wide variety of tree-sourced foods, such as acorns in the winter, fresh greens or sprouts in the spring and summer, and berries in the fall. Wild turkeys have an even broader diet that includes insects and grubs. Diversifying the kinds of trees in a forest, in addition to the trees’ ages, creates even more sources of food.

Whatever forest management activity you undertake, preventing silt from washing into adjacent streams or other water bodies is an important responsibility. Poorly designed and constructed roads can be a problem. Removing stream bank vegetation can also be an issue. Typically, creating an opening in a forest’s canopy doesn’t pose a threat to water quality, but you still need to be careful about how you disturb the soil. Always avoid soil disturbance adjacent to water and be mindful of your impact on steeper slopes. Even small gullies on slopes can grow large with heavy rains, allowing soil to wash downhill.

If you’re interested in tree planting, you can spend a lot of time, money, and energy for naught if you don’t pick the right species. What part of the country you live in will dictate what kinds of trees grow best, but the lay of your property can also be a factor. Some trees grow more robust on north-facing slopes, others prosper on south-facing ones. Some do better in lower elevations on mostly saturated soils, while others do best on hill tops. If pleasant scenery is a management priority, a woodland owner might favor tree species with showy spring flowers or others with reliably vibrant fall color.

We know from studies like the National Woodland Owners Survey that family forest landowners are a diverse lot. The reasons for owning woodlands are equally diverse, as are the approaches any given landowner chooses to take in managing their land. Whether it’s with or without the help of a resource professional, woodland owners should consider how they might cultivate trees of a variety of ages and species that are well-suited to their properties and can be managed appropriately to preserve water quality and prevent erosion.

Have questions for the author? Marvin Brown, staff member for the NASF Forest Resource Management Committee, is available by email.

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