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Forest Service Plans for Private Timber Lands

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Forest Service Plans for Private Timberlands

By Jack Petree

The owners of privately held forest lands, especially those with small acreages, will see big changes in coming years as the U.S. Forest Service engages them in an effort to encourage and/or require cooperative management of the nation’s forests. Yet to be understood is how much carrot and how much stick the Service will apply as it seeks to integrate management of the nation’s forestlands. The entire forest products industry will be impacted, and the Service’s new initiatives will threaten some segments of the industry while providing significant opportunity for others.

Forest Service Concerns about the Fragmentation of Forest Lands

More than 420 million acres of the nation’s forestlands are privately owned by about 11 million landowners. Eight million of those owners control parcels of 50 acres or less. The Forest Service is concerned that, “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.”

Even more fragmentation is on the way. The Service says, “According to our analysis, over 57 million acres of forest land could experience a substantial increase in housing density from 2002 to 2030.”

To better interact with the owners of small acreage forests, the Service developed what it calls an “Open Space Conservation Strategy” supported by data developed in a number of “Forests on the Edge” reports.

Carrot or Stick?

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.”

On the other hand, the Service describes “Forests on the Edge” 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.” The Service also intends to reach out and participate in community growth planning to “…reduce ecological impacts and wildfire risks.” Even the “urban forest” is studied as part of the program.

New Approaches May Benefit the Forest Products Industry

At best, the Forest Service’s new initiatives will help the owner of small acreages profitably manage their land to achieve personal goals. Service examination of the nation’s family forests has revealed that the vast majority of small acreage (100 acres or less) owners are not focused on holding the land for timber production, rather, they hold the land for scenery, privacy, nature protection, and recreation.

The problem with managing land for esthetic values is expense. While a landowner might hold nature protection and other goals to be important, those goals often take a back seat to spending priorities. The Service worries that too many owners of small parcel forestlands believe benign neglect is an adequate management strategy. Unfortunately, in today’s world of fragmented holdings, invasive species, and other threats to the forest, a neglected forest is often an unhealthy forest.

To address the fiscal problem and encourage active management of even small forests, a “priority action” of the Open Space Conservation Strategy is to “Promote national policies and markets to help private landowners conserve open space.”

If small acreages can be managed profitably to achieve owners’ goals, the result will be a fresh look at everything from the management of habitat to strategic harvest, the nature of the harvest itself, and the kinds of harvesting and processing equipment required to manage the forest.

First Steps toward Enhancing Profitability

An early step toward enhancing markets came last year when the Secretary of Agriculture (under which the Forest Service operates) announced a national initiative to make wood a primary building material in “green building” projects. Citing a Forest Service study, Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction, Secretary Vilsack said, “This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years. Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design.”

How the Forest Products Industry Will Change Due to Forest Service Initiatives

The national shift to utilizing family forests for wood products will drive significant change in the industry. An increasingly large portion of the nation’s timber resource will be in the hands of family forest owners who control smaller parcels and are uninterested in clear cutting. More emphasis is likely to be placed on removal of damaged trees (insect, storm, etc.), uneven age cuts, and thinning. Greater demand for forest products and greater awareness of the need to actively manage land for forest health and improved habitat will mean more wood products will come from small acreage stands actively managed to achieve goals not necessarily related to optimizing timber production.
Small-scale technologies will become increasingly important.

A paper released by the University of Minnesota’s College of Natural Resources and Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station pointed to the issues raised by 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.” The paper concludes that small-scale equipment “… that can help minimize the capital and operating costs associated with partial harvests or when operating on smaller tracts,” will see increasing importance in coming years.

On the processing end, small-scale sawmilling has been a rapidly growing, albeit under-the-radar, technology for some years. Portable sawmills and fixed-in-place very thin kerf band industrial sawmills that process a few million board feet per year have been growth industries even during the recession. The growth is because small mills thrive on milling material and dimensions that are typically of no interest to larger, conventional mills.

Recent research from Auburn University points to both the fiscal and enhanced management potential smaller sawmills provide. Portable mills, Auburn researchers say, provide an important management tool for small parcel forestry as “…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.”


New U.S. Forest Service approaches promise considerable opportunity to the owner of small-scale family forests throughout the United States. Through approaches — including providing advice, building markets for forest products, and assisting land owners in developing management plans — the Service appears to be well along the road to helping individual land owners achieve both personal and community goals for family forest holdings by promoting management actions that are potentially financially rewarding.