My quarterly contribution to “Virginia Forests” magazine.
Forests are changing and so is who owns them
If it seems like forest land ownership is dominated by people at or near retirement, that is because it is. While most Virginia landowners are 45-65 years old and only about a third of are over sixty-five, the older group owns around half of all forest land. This creates anxiety. That is why you find articles related to estate and succession planning in this “Virginia Forests “magazine. I am not here to tell you that this is not important, because truly it is. We are planting for the next generation; we need to plan for them too.
The advancing age of so many forest owners, however, is not surprising. Some owners inherit land. Others buy it as a long-term investment and from passion for forestry. At what stage of life is this most likely? Forest owner are often older individuals the same way HS seniors are usually around eighteen-years-old.
Forest are always becoming. This is true of what is growing on the land and who owns it. It is not profound wisdom to say that the future will differ from the past and that it is hard to predict. We can, however, predict with confidence a big trend already in process. Forest ownership is becoming more fragmented, with more owners and smaller acreage.
Remember I said that the over sixty-five age group makes up a third of forest owners but owns half of the forest land? Newer owners own less acreage on average. Most (84%) have purchased their land, i.e. did not get it through inheritance or gift. They are the future. The smaller the parcel the less likely owners are able to practice forestry consistently. Less managements can be done on ten acres than 100, for example, and it is often hard even to find someone willing to harvest small tracts. Implications for forestry and forests are significant. Forest fragmentation continues. We need to develop strategies to address what we cannot avoid. Possible actions include things like encouraging groups of landowners to cooperate in forest management and making information more readily available to a mass-market of owners.
Tree Farm’s strength has been personal contact to understand landowner specific conditions and needs and provide customized advice. This worked for seventy-five years, but is not practical when the number of forest owners goes up as acreage goes down. Tree Farm protected water, soil and wildlife. More trees are growing in Virginia today. But we need to engage a wider range of people. We may lose the personal boots-on-the-ground truth, but smaller-acreage tree farmers can still be deeply engaged, maybe sharing knowledge laterally within the tree farm community. Many bought land because with passion for forests and desire to be part of sustainable forestry. We share aspirations. Together can achieve great things – IF we make and sustain community.
Sustainability does not mean unchanging. It is beneficial change that nourishes the health of the land and the biotic and human communities on it. Tree Farm has done a great job of helping sustain communities and can do it into the future.