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Tuesday
Sep272011

Aging forest owners: What will become of their woods?

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine's Future Writer

Jim walked slowly up the path, as he had done ten thousand times before. Almost every day for decades. Through the woods. His woods, he thought. But . . . not really his. Just The Woods. It was a crisp, fall day. Red maples, golden beech, purple ash against the almost black evergreens. The ferns at his feet had turned bronze. It was autumn for him too. He turned 88 two weeks ago. He knew he wouldn't live forever. His beloved woodlands would go on, of course. He hoped they would, anyway.

His father had deeded him the first 50 acres after he got back from the war in the Pacific. He had inherited the rest of the old man's land when he died in '71. Jim had gone into insurance after the war, but his heart was with his woods. He nurtured trees, improved the roads, logged to improve the stands, built trails, planted apple trees for the deer. He watched the trees mature and flourish, reveled in the wildlife that called them home. Took long walks there.

Light in the forest (Photo: The Rankin File)Even before his father died he was buying more woodland. In the '50s and '60s the price was right, and he couldn't see it going down. His beloved Esther just shook her head. But she indulged him. They lived simply, after all. Logs and pulp helped pay for the kids' college. Beyond that, the forest nurtured his spirit. During the low times he went for long walks in the woods.

One of those times came in '83, when Esther fell ill. It was long, drawn out. Painful for her and him. He held her hand a lot. The kids had moved away after college. One lived in Maryland now, one in New Mexico, one in Columbus, Ohio. They all had good jobs. City jobs. Gave him grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He still had the old house, still had the collie. And the woods.

But what would happen to the woods when he went? It had been gnawing at him. Jim knew he could sell the land now. But it would be like selling a friend. He didn't need the cash. He still lived simply. He was at home here. He could leave it to the kids . . . But he didn't think they were interested. Growing up they were out in the woods all the time. Afterward, not so much. On visits home they tended to change the subject when he started talking trees. Splitting it between them didn't seem right. Giving it to one didn't seem fair. He'd like the acreage to stay whole. To stay green. The whole question had become difficult, unrelenting. It needed to be dealt with. Sooner, rather than later. He had a doctor's appointment in three days. Somehow, he didn't think the news was going to be good.

In one sense, Jim is fictional. In another, he is a composite. In reality, his story is so close to that of tens of thousands of American forest lland owners that it could, with a couple of tweaks, literally be their story.

When it comes to woodlands, and woodland ownership, the United States may be in the middle of one of the greatest transitions since the settling of the continent by Europeans. Forest landowners who have held on to their property, harvested it and maintained it for decades and kept it intact, are aging. Many have made no provisions for the future of their lands.

“I feel that the aging of America's forest landowners is one of the more pressing national issues we're seeing right now,” said Brett Butler, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service and the author of Family Forest Owners of the U.S.

Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, agrees: “This generational transfer is probably the biggest change related to forests that there is. But it's hidden. It happens 20 and 50 and 300 acres at a time.”

Doak says large forestland sales make the headlines because they're big, but they generally mark the transfer between one large landowner and another. The land stays as woodland, the use doesn't change. That isn't necessarily so when you're talking family forestland, which is concentrated in the southern, and more populated, two-thirds of Maine, he said.

The numbers tell a story in themselves.

Butler said that, nationally, 20 percent of family forestland is owned by people 75 years and older. Another 30 percent by people between 55 and 65. In Maine there are more than 120,000 small woodland owners, and two-thirds of them are 55 or older. Forty percent of those small woodlands are held by people 65 and older.

That's not to imply that 55, or 65, or even 75 is “old” in this second decade of the 21st century. People are living longer. And, by and large, they are healthier, more vital. But it is a reality that increasing age brings more . . . uncertainty.

“As you age, the probability of the passing of the land to the next generation increases,” said Butler. “Many of these landowners are not sure what the future of the land is going to be, who the next owners will be or how they're going to treat it. One thing that is very common, almost universal, among family forest owners is a deep love of the land. They want to do what's right. And many want the woods to stay as woods. And some are not certain that will happen.”

For society this so-called “inter-generational transfer” is an important issue, say experts in forest landownership. Because it's at that point that other changes can occur.

“When the land changes hands, that is when there is a great probability of a change occurring in the land use. If it is going to be developed or parcelized, that is when it is more likely to happen. It is a critical junction we are at,” said Butler. “We are seeing parcelization occurring all across the United States. There is a greater number of family forest landowners with small pieces.”

“I think the uses of land are different now,” said Doak. “The idea was that woodland was woodland. Its value was 90 percent in the timber, 10 percent in the land. Those numbers are flipped right now. Land can be used for a lot of things other than growing timber. In past generations it was going to stay woodland. But there are pressures on land that didn't exist before. That doesn't mean it's going to happen. It means it can happen.”

The implications of breaking down woodlands into smaller chunks are many.

They include a reduction in the wood supply as parcels become too small to harvest or their owners don't bother, a proliferation in invasive species because new landowners don't see a need or have the time to learn about or combat them, and a shrinking of the land available for recreation as owners of smaller lots tack up “no trespassing” signs.

Everyone is aware of the differences between generations. There are different values there.

 New owners, new values

Experts say the nation's older family forest landowners are likely to have a deep connection to the land. Many have owned it for decades and maintained it as forestland. The new owners, whether it is their children, or a purchaser, aren't as likely to have that connection, or even view the woods in quite the same way.

 In the best of all worlds, transfers of woodland – sales or bequests – are planned. In the real world, too often they are not.

The Family Forest Program in the University of Maine's Center for Research on Sustainable Forests has done four different surveys since 2008 that looked at forest landowner demographics in Maine. Two were statewide, the others focused on Penobscot and Kennebec counties.

Jessica Leahy, who studies and teaches about the “human dimensions” of forest resources at the University of Maine, said those surveys show that while “a majority of landowners are taking care of the legal and financial transfer of their property to their heirs” some 41 percent haven't even made out a simple will.

Ages of family forest landowners in the U.S. 2006 (Graphic: U.S. Forest Service)“In our recent Kennebec County study, we were surprised to discover that 16 percent of our landowners were not sure who would inherit their land when they pass away. That is a concern,” Leahy said in an e-mail interview. “When we asked people who did not have a will, trust, or estate plan why they had not yet taken action, the top three statements made were, 'I will get a will when I am older,' 'I will get a will if I get sick,' and 'I don't want to think about getting a will."

Basic human nature. Making a will means confronting the inevitability of death.

Leahy said her data also show that landowners are transferring forest land to their heirs without talking about how they want it cared for.

“Nearly 60 percent of the landowners in our recent survey wanted their heirs to keep the land the same as they have. But it's not clear that the heirs have any way of knowing this since 73 percent of landowners have not spoken to their heirs about their wishes,” she said. Only 1 percent have put anything to that effect in writing.

Leahy said one time she was present when a father talked to his adult daughter about that subject. Leahy remembers starting the discussion by asking what she thought was a simple question: have you two talked about your wishes for the land when you're gone?

“The daughter was quick to respond with a 'No . . . So, dad, what do you want us to do with the land?' And the discussion went from there. I wish more landowners would have this discussion with their heirs, even though it is a tough conversation to have.”

Leahy said another major concern is the number of heirs who are likely to get a chunk of any given parcel. In the Family Forest Program's survey of Kennebec County landowners, 24 percent said they were planning to give it to three people. Another 14 percent said they planned to give it to four – or more.

“Combined, this suggests that at least 38 percent of the land will go to more landowners than they currently have now,” said Leahy. “Many of us believe that there will be more family conflicts and more difficulties in keeping forests as forests because of how many 'cooks in the kitchen' are projected.”

Leahy's research also found that almost a quarter of Kennebec County survey respondents said they are “extremely concerned,” about estate taxes.

  Taxes and land trusts

SWOAM's Tom Doak said revamping the estate tax should be a priority for society if it wants to keep forests as forests for timber, recreation, and open space. In Maine many people are not rich in dollars, but their land is valuable. The estate tax, he said, forces the “carving up of woodland” to cover that tax bill.

There also needs to be a recognition said Doak, that the “new owner profile is not the old owner profile” and that government programs of the past that were largely geared toward timber production might need supplementing or replacing with new ones that address the values of a new generation of woodland owners.

He also said local and state governments need to make it easier to own forestland. The Tree Growth Tax Law, a current use tax program, is under almost perpetual assault, he said.

Doak added that attitudes toward forest landowners and their concerns vary widely throughout the state. Some Maine towns go out of their way to work with forest landowners, others don't, he said. “If we want them to hold on to it and keep it as woodland then we've got to find ways to make it easier and more enjoyable to do that,” he said.

Concerns about how their land will be treated and cared for and used, and worries about the estate tax have boosted interest in SWOAM's land trust, and Doak said he anticipates that interest to blossom over the next few years.

The organization now holds 13 easements on almost 3,500 acres and owns outright over 3,000 acres, said Doak. “We have three closings coming up in the next month. And we're dealing with a landowner with over 1,900 acres right now.”

“The people we tend to deal with have lifetime commitments to their property, but they're beginning to think what happens after they're gone. They're saying, I have 30 years or 50 years of my life in this property and I want to know that somehow that gets carried on. They don't trust the kids. And, they want to see long-term management continue,” Doak said.

Asked to boil down the aging landowner issue into one sentence, Leahy said: “We don't need more foresters, we need more family counselors.”

People who have cared for a parcel of woodland for decades have such an intense connection with it that it's hard for them to talk about, she said. “A well-cared for piece of land – that because of a landowner's hard work is better now than when they started – that's a legacy. And we have a hard time talking about our legacy,” she said.

She would like to see family counselors who are trained in holding family meetings where the land is the focus. “In my ideal world, landowners would know and feel comfortable bringing these counselors on board to help them define and then share their wishes.”

One outgrowth of the new interest in the aging forest landowner is the number of programs designed to aid them in figuring out how to deal with the issue, said Butler, the Forest Service researcher.

Estate planning resources

One is called Ties to the Land. Run out of Oregon State University. It aims to give family forest landowners the tools to ensure that the transition of their property to the next generation is a smooth one.

Path in the woods (Photo: The Rankin File)The U.S. Forest Service has a very comprehensive publication titled Estate Planning for Forest Landowners: What Will Become of Your Timberland? Similarly, University of Massachusetts Extension has a valuable publication on the issue called Your Land, Your Legacy that can be accessed online. You can find information about the SWOAM Land Trust online as well.

A soon-to-be unveiled online course for Maine woodland owners called The Woodland Steward Program will address estate planning issues as part of the broader topic of woodland finances. The project is being developed by The New England Forestry Foundation, SWOAM and the Maine TREE Foundation.

If you want more information about the issue in general, Butler's Family Forest Owners of the United States is available online. And he and collaborator Zhao Ma wrote an insightful article titled Family Forest Owner Trends in the Northern United States for the Society of American Foresters. You can also access the Family Forest Program at Maine’s School of Forest Resources.

The issue of inter-generational forestland transfer is a critical one, and, while the U.S. might be smack in the middle of the trend, it's not going to be over quickly.

“It's a continuous process. It will continue for the next 10 to 20 years. People are living longer, so that will extend it, though we will hit a climax, of course,” said Butler. He's hopeful it will work out for the forest. He notes that family forestland owners tend to be what he calls “self-selecting.” You generally acquire or keep forestland because you want it, not to get rich.

Leahy said she's “actually optimistic that the next generation of landowners will be bitten by the same stewardship bug as our current generation of small woodlot owners. There is something about caring for the forest that calls to people. I don't have the data to back this up, because it is that spark you see in people's eye when they talk about their land, and I can't measure that.”

Joe Rankin was somewhat startled to realize that he's an aging forest landowner himself. He writes, farms, keeps bees and walks his dogs in his woods in New Sharon.