As landowners age, future of family-owned forests in U.S. is unclear

An interesting phenomenon is sprouting up among American landowners — or forest-owners, to be precise. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. forests are privately owned, most by families and individuals, the majority of whom are 55 years old and older. More often than not, aging landowners’ offspring have moved to the city, are uninvolved in forest management, and are uninterested in becoming so. The situation is “a ticking time bomb,” says Brett Butler of the U.S. Forest Service Family Forest Research Center. Squeamishness about death can keep landowner families from discussing what should be done with tracts of land when the inevitable happens, and high taxes are a deterrent to unwilling heirs who feel like they have few choices. “The first time Wal-Mart or a developer makes an offer, they are going to take it,” says Al Sample of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. To keep forests from that fate, a variety of programs offer advice to unprepared landowners, and advocates hope that the 2007 farm bill will provide incentives for keeping forests in the family.