In the coming years, if the U.S. Forest Service has its way, farmers, investors, owners of lands held for recreational purposes and others owning family forestlands will significantly change the way they manage their lands. In 2012, the Service is already well along the road in terms of directly engaging individual forestland owners, especially those with smaller parcels, in an effort to encourage cooperative management of all the nation's forests to achieve a series of broad public goals. Some might feel the roads the Service is traveling down could lead to expanded intrusion by the government into private affairs, while others might appreciate the Service's seeming focus on expanding markets for wood and wood products as it seeks to assist landowners in achieving goals those landowners might have for their lands. In either case, change is coming to the landscape of the nation's private farms and woodlands as the Forest Service moves to develop ways to coordinate management strategies across public and private boundaries. Agriculture, forestry and the industries associated with each will see considerable change as Forest Service initiatives to conserve and manage not only public forest lands but private lands as well come to fruition.
Thinning for health and fire reduction is an important strategy in preserving the forest resource.
Photos by Jack Petree.
Concerns about the fragmentation of forestlands
More than 420 million acres of the nation's forestlands (about 56 percent of the total) are privately owned. Approximately three-quarters of those acres are located in the eastern U.S. Around 11 million landowners manage those lands in some fashion. About 8 million of those 11 million owners control parcels comprised of 50 acres or less in size.
Those statistics worry the U.S. Forest Service. According to a 2009 report by the Service, "Smaller, more fragmented (or disconnected) parcels can lead to a host of changes in water quality and aquatic species diversity, timber volume and management, native wildlife populations, forest structure and function, wildfire risk, and scenic quality and recreational opportunities.
"According to our analysis, over 57 million acres of forestland could experience a substantial increase in housing density from 2002 to 2030." That increase is due to a trend that has seen the owners of large parcels of forested land, especially those who have managed the forests as a timber resource for many decades, sell off their lands. The lands are often purchased by investors who, in turn, may subdivide the land and resell it to owners with much different goals than the original owners of the industrial forest had for the property. The resulting fragmentation is seen by the Forest Service as an obstacle to unified management of the nation's forest resource.
Concerned about the implications of the data, the Forest Service has done a lot of work in recent years trying to discern how it can interact with the owners of small acreage farms and other holdings. Examinations of the nature of the American forest resource, an "Open Space Conservation Strategy" for the entire nation and an associated series of works called "Forests on the Edge" relate to future relationships between small acreage landowners and the Department of Agriculture, of which the Forest Service is a part.
The jury is still out on how the Forest Service will implement its Open Space Conservation Strategy - on whether the carrot or the stick will be dominant.
On announcing the Conservation strategy in 2007, Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said, "We plan to achieve this through collaboration and partnerships - by working with willing landowners, conservation groups and state and local governments to promote voluntary land conservation."
A portable milling allows management of small parcels easily.
On the other hand, the Service is clearly extending its reach to include all the forested lands of the nation. The title "Forests on the Edge" would seem, on the face, to imply the Forest Service is embarking on a program aimed at coordinating with landowners at the interface (the edge) between the national forests and the private forests of the U.S. The program description might be taken as being considerably more than that, saying the "project employs geographic information system techniques to identify areas across the country where private forest services such as timber, wildlife habitat and water quality might be affected by factors such as development, fire, insect pests and diseases."
Further, the Service points out, one of the four major approaches to be used in implementing the Open Space Conservation Strategy is participation in community growth planning to "reduce ecological impacts and wildfire risks." Documents prepared to assist in that participation include works on the urban (city forests), the potential for endangered and threatened species on all private lands, and Forest Service analysis of where the private forest is "threatened" by the actions of the landowners having title to those forests.
New approaches benefiting forestland owners
At best, the expanding relationship between the Service and the owner of even small acreages with trees will improve opportunity to profitably manage the land to achieve personal goals for the land.
A forest service examination of the nation's family forests some years ago revealed that, especially in terms of smaller acreage, the majority of owners held land because of scenery, privacy, nature protection and recreation. Only about 10 percent held the land for timber production, and those were primarily owners holding larger acreages.
That is not all good news because, as the Service points out, "Smaller parcels can be more difficult to manage for timber, recreation, forest health, wildfire prevention water and wildlife."
Two factors are important in terms of managing small parcel ownerships. First, managing for the values most hold their land for is expensive so, while a landowner might hold nature protection and other goals to be important the goals can seem less important when achieving the goals becomes an economic burden.
Second, too many owners of small parcel forestlands believe a policy of benign neglect is an adequate management strategy. "If I just leave it alone it will take care of itself," is a typical attitude.
Unfortunately, in today's world of fragmented holdings, invasive species and other threats to the forest, a neglected forest is an unhealthy forest.
To address the problems lack of management can pose to the family owned forest a "priority action" to be taken as part of the Open Space Conservation Strategy is, according to the Service, to "Promote national policies and markets to help private landowners conserve open space."
If the Service acts to implement the priority action, all aspects of the forest products and agricultural industry will be impacted. Farm woodlots, to the extent they can be made profitable, will be considered with the care due a profit center rather than as an afterthought. On farm and nonfarm plots alike new looks at everything from the management of habitat through strategic harvest, the nature of the harvest itself, and the kinds of harvesting and processing equipment required to manage the forest will have to be taken and accounted for.
Steps toward enhancing profitability
One example of a follow through on the priority action came in late 2011, when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced a new initiative by the department to make wood a primary building material in "green building" projects. Highlighting a growing awareness in the scientific community regarding the part the forest products industry can play in environmental enhancement, U. S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced his agency would begin to promote wood "as a primary building material in green building."
The basis of Vilsack's decision was a U.S. Forest Service Study, "Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction." The study includes an extensive review of the scientific literature on wood as a construction material. The review led to a conclusion that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than the use of other common building materials does. "This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years," Vilsack said. "Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design."
From the perspective of a researcher producing the study, David Cleaves, U.S. Forest Service climate change advisor, said, "The argument that somehow non-wood construction materials are ultimately better for carbon emissions than wood products is not supported by our research. Trees removed in an environmentally responsible way allow forests to continue to sequester carbon through new forest growth. Wood products continue to benefit the environment by storing carbon long after the building has been constructed."
How Forest Service initiatives will change the forest products and agriculture industries
Two key factors are likely to drive change in forest products and agricultural industries as the Forest Service, with support from the USDA, implements the Open Space Conservation Strategy.
First, the divesture of forestlands by those previously managing the lands as industrial forests means an increasingly large portion of the nation's timber resource will be in the hands of family forest owners controlling smaller parcels and uninterested in clear-cutting or severe cuts.
Second, an increasing need for forest products, greater market imperatives, and the need to actively manage land to assure forest health and improved habitat will encourage more owners to actually engage in active management of their lands, meaning harvest will become more important for both environmental and profitability reasons on the land.
From the landowner side, there should be much more emphasis on occasional harvests of insect, storm or otherwise damaged trees, uneven age cuts and thinning to improve stand health.
Equipment is where the focus of real change has been and will continue to be.
Smaller parcels and more selective cuts means smaller equipment; equipment capable of moving felled tree stems around the forest without damage to standing trees are likely to be required.
A paper released some time ago by the University of Minnesota's College of Natural Resources and Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station pointed to the issue of small-scale harvest saying, "The likelihood that an increasing share of the nation's timber supply will be obtained from relatively small tracts or uneven-aged, mixed-species stands poses a number of challenges to harvesting technology. Cost-effective and flexible harvesting systems must simultaneously meet evolving criteria for safety and minimal site/stand impact. While the current generation of highly productive, capital-intensive harvesting machinery is well-suited for working in clear-cuts, especially in large stands, its application is limited in small stands or where partial cutting is prescribed. Small-scale equipment is becoming more readily available that can help minimize the capital and operating costs associated with partial harvests or when operating on smaller tracts. However, contractors and landowners may not have access to information about the costs and benefits of the new technology."
The new approach to forestry by the Forest Service seems likely to open up significant opportunity for manufacturers of small-scale equipment. The challenge will be informing likely users about that opportunity.
From the processing end, small-scale sawmilling has been a rapidly growing, albeit under the radar, technology for some years. Research at Auburn University in recent years points to both the fiscal and enhanced management potential portable sawmills bring, pointing out the following:
- "An additional benefit of portable sawmills as a management tool is in the utilization of trees removed from storm damage, bug damage, salvage, dead trees, selective harvest, thinning and other stand improvements ... the availability of this new technology provided a tool to profitably turn previously 'useless and worthless' trees into valuable lumber with an initial investment less than the cost of a small tractor," and;
- "Portable sawmills have the potential to fill a niche market, utilizing existing natural resources that may otherwise be neglected, serve as a source of additional income for small-scale private landowners, as well as improve forest health and rural quality of life."
New U.S. Forest Service approaches promise considerable opportunity for the owners of small-scale family forests throughout the U.S. Through approaches including providing advice, building markets for forest products and assisting landowners in developing management plans, the Service appears to be well along the road to helping individual landowners achieve both personal and community goals for family forest holdings by promoting management actions with the potential to be financially rewarding.
The author is a longtime freelance contributor to Moose River Media.