Our society tends to take the forest for granted. We enjoy the natural beauty of tree covered mountains, get thrilled at seeing forest wildlife, enjoy the ease of life that wood products provide, and seldom regard where it all comes from. Here in east Tennessee it’s predominately individuals that own the forest, so let’s take a look at who these folks demographically.
In the U.S. private landowners own and control 56% of the forest land (423 million acres). The other 40 odd percent is owned by federal and state agencies, and industry. Family forest owners (that don’t just own forest land for investment purposes) account for 92% of the private forest ownership and control 35% of all forest land.
Now here is an important fact: 61% of family forest owners own less than 10 acres. This is due to a long trend over the last few decades of large landholdings like farms being broken into smaller parcels for various reasons, mostly when land is handed down to another generation. Family forest landowners statistically are middle to senior in age. 70% of them are over 55, and 20% of them are over 75. So it’s a very common occurrence around here that a farm owner dies, the kids get it and either break it up into parcels for their own use or sell it and somebody else does it.
The reasons people own forest or buy land have changed over the years as well. Going from highest to lowest, they are: beauty and scenery, part of a home or cabin site, privacy, to protect nature, to have something to pass on to heirs, land investment, hunting/fishing, other recreation, part of a farm or ranch, firewood production, and last of all: timber production. The last one gives me pause, because we consume a lot of tree stuff (paper, houses, etc.), and trees are one of the few natural resources that are renewable… we can grow more. But if the forest landowners stop harvesting their timber occasionally, then toothpicks are going to get very expensive.
Here is some other stuff that gets a forester’s attention: only one in five acres of family forest land is owned by someone who has a written forest management plan. If you’re going to own something that is alive, it only makes sense to know how to take care of it. So if you own forest land get yourself a forester to show you the way. Studying information on forestry is also good, and there is a lot of it on the internet.
What management activities are being done on the average family forest? Mostly nothing. Harvesting is the number one activity when it’s allowed. But there is very little forest health work being done, such as thinning, or getting rid of exotic invasive plants. The reason is usually a lack of knowledge and unwillingness to spend the money and time.
One other tidbit: Compared to the rest of the population, there are an increasing proportion of family forest owners who are older, white, male, more educated, and wealthier. Whatever you are, if you own woodland, get to know it better, so contact your local state forestry office.