A survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory & Analysis program has provided insight into behavioral patterns and motivating factors for the nation’s 10 million family forestownerships.
The National Woodland Owner Survey (NWOS) collected data from more than 10,000 landowners over the past three years. Landowners were selected at random, and each participant was sent a self-administered survey consisting of 30 questions to determine the characteristics of their land, the landowner’s attitude towards it, why they own it, how they’ve managed it, and what their future plans are for it.
U.S. Forest Service researcher Brett Butler helped guide the project with help from the Family Forest Research Center (a joint venture between the Forest Service and the University of Massachusetts Amherst). Butler has been sharing preliminary findings with forestry professionals and agency partners. Forest Service officials hope to finalize the survey’s findings sometime later this year.
Perhaps what the conservation community might find most concerning is that the data suggests a vast majority of family forest landowners are not aware of incentive programs.
Of those surveyed:
82% were not familiar with forest certification
78% were not familiar with easements
77% were not familiar with tax programs
75% were not familiar with cost-share programs
In terms of participation, only three percent of the family ownerships surveyed indicated involvement in a cost-share program, although that represents 21 percent of the acreage surveyed. Seven percent participate in tax programs, followed by easements (two percent) and certification (one percent).
Butler is quick to make the point that incentive programs are not for everyone. “It depends on what the benefits are to them,” he says. “For most, timber is not the primary objective.”
In fact, beauty, or scenic value, was the top reason landowners selected for forest ownership. This was also true in the 2006 National Woodland Owner Survey.
University of Massachusetts Extension Assistant Professor Paul Catanzaro who is a researcher with the Family Forest Research Center (FFRC) and uses the NWOS survey to guide his outreach programs. For decades, he says, forestry leaders have made management and incentive programs the focus, when surveys like this suggest the interest isn’t there for everyone. “Why convince people to manage their land if their reason for ownership is the beauty of it?”
Instead, Catanzaro believes the best solution may be for federal agencies to change their focus when dealing with non-active forest landowners. “Our forests are still doing great things when left passive,” he says. “But we also know that, at some point, they’re going to need to make a decision that will impact their family and the public, maybe a timber sale or succession planning. We need to worry about building the relationships now so those landowners know who to call when they face that decision.
“It’s not always a popular message or a sexy solution, but I do think it’s effective.”
Even though the findings do not show knowledge of available programs or a strong interest in traditional management, they do indicate an interest in taking care of the land. More than 60% of landowners stated they cared about protecting wildlife habitat and nature.
“As we see in Brett’s report, a lot of landowners don’t care if they have a plan or not, but they do care about getting the information they need to manage their forest or take care of the wildlife,” says Karl Dalla Rosa, National Forest Stewardship Program Manager. “It’s not to say Forest Stewardship plans are not important, but the goal is not the plan, it’s having an impact on the landscape by providing assistance to private forest landowners.”
Butler has identified five takeaway points from the preliminary data:
Family forest owners rule!
“They own a plurality, and in most states a majority, of the forest land,” says Butler.
Not all family forests are created equal
The goals of the landowner vary based on acreage. Someone with one acre will not have a need for certification, but someone with 1,000 acres might.
Most landowners own it for amenity values
The forestry community admits it has a different outlook when it comes to the forest resource. This can create a disconnect when trying to understand landowner motives. “They may look at it as berry habitat or trout habitat, whereas we might look at it as timber resource,” says Butler. “But there are many things the land is a great for.”
There’s a huge love of the land
The survey indicates that a vast majority of the landowners polled want to be good stewards. Sometimes it’s just a matter of limited time or resources. Butler views this as an opportunity for the conservation community to reach out. “We must provide them what they want, how they want it and when they need it,” he says. “Maybe they’re not interested in a timber harvest, but they are in a wildlife habitat improvement project. The result on the land might be exactly the same, but to present it in two different ways might be astronomically different in how it’s received.”
A need to design and communicate properly
Part of delivering the message effectively is knowing how to communicate it properly. The National Woodland Owners Survey reaffirms that landowners speak a different language. Butler and his Sustaining Family Forest Initiative colleague, Mary Tyrell from Yale University, have two sets of terminology. “When we talk to professionals we use the word forest landowners. When we talk to private landowners, we’ll talk about their land, talk about their trees, talk about their woods. We don’t use the ‘f’ word.”
Butler will continue to present the preliminary data to Forest Service partners over the next several months, including at the NACD Forest Resource Policy Group meeting in Macon, Ga. this summer. In the future, he hopes the FFRC is able to work with cooperators to expand on the data, including more in-depth reporting at the state or regional level.
The first woodland owner survey was conducted in the 1950s, but only focused on the number of owners and the size of their holdings. The project has evolved through the years, with the first national survey having been conducted in 1993. It’s now the Forest Service’s goal to publish results from the survey every five years.
To learn more about the National Woodland Owner Survey, visit www.fia.fs.fed.us/nwos.