The Untapped Potential of Family Forests

A vast amount of North America’s forest cover is owned by individuals. Many don’t realize how much they could be doing to improve biodiversity and ecosystem health.

TEXT—Christina Leimer


My spouse and I never thought we’d buy a house in the country. We were West Coasters and city lovers, but soaring prices sent us inland searching for an affordable place with lots of trees. To my surprise, we ended up finding the right place in Missouri, not far from where I grew up: a house surrounded by hickories, oaks, maples, and elms. It would be our natural world retreat, a daily immersion in serenity, beauty, and wildlife. All I needed to do, I figured, was mow a little grass and enjoy. 

Then came a reality check: while researching forest restoration for an article I was writing, I realized that trees don’t just take care of themselves as I’d assumed. They need care. 

Looking at the leafy wooden giants in my yard, I wilted. I know nothing about taking care of trees. 


Even though we live on the edge of a small city, I was surprised to learn we technically own a forest, or very nearly. According to the U.S. Forest Service, a “family forest” can be as little as one acre with at least 10 per cent tree coverage owned by an individual, family, or unincorporated group. Our land is just short of an acre but certainly meets the tree quota. Adding in the wooded common property adjoining ours and the treed acreage belonging to our neighbours, we live in a good-sized forest. 

This discovery offered a new way of seeing and understanding our land. I felt energized and grateful. Trees nourish me physically, psychologically, and spiritually, and I wanted to reciprocate by giving them what they need. Thinking about our property as a forest, I’d found a way to learn about its trees and contribute to environmental sustainability at the same time. 


Privately owned forests



If you ask most people who owns the forests, they’ll likely name national and regional governments or logging companies.

The truth is more complicated. According to Brett J. Butler, co-director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Family Forest Research Center, the majority of U.S. forest acreage is privately owned. Corporations own about 20 per cent. The largest portion, 39 per cent, is “family forests.” In Canada, only 6 per cent is privately owned, though that portion is higher in the eastern provinces and British Columbia.

Family forests in the U.S. range in size from one to more than 1,000 acres. Most are less than 100 acres, and many are under 10 acres. Taken as a whole, family forests in America are larger than the country’s national forests. Their ownership is divided among 18 million individuals, each of whom makes independent decisions about their land with no oversight or coordinating body.

Similar private ownership and family forest patterns exist in eastern Canada and many European and Nordic countries as well, Butler says in his book, America’s Family Forest Owners. But government policies and cultural traditions there make it more likely the land will remain forested and intact across generations than in the U.S.

The consequence of so much private forest ownership in the U.S., where private property is sacrosanct, is that owners’ individual decisions about their land collectively influence the nation’s forest ecosystems. Owners can independently change their land with few or no legal restrictions and without thinking about it as part of a larger whole.

Government forests and their preservation are not enough to counter the negative impacts of ecologically uninformed private land activities. Individual property owners’ decisions matter because, as Butler’s book says, “the fate of the nation’s forests lies largely in their hands.”



The need for expert advice



Based on the National Woodland Owner Survey (NWOS), which Butler administers, most family forest owners bought their property for its beauty, privacy, wildlife watching, and recreation value. Few think of it as an investment for financial return.

Consequently, their land is “running in the background,” says Butler. Some forest owners do build trails, selectively cut trees, or remove invasive plants, but “many are not sure what to do and choose to do nothing.”

I certainly understand feeling overwhelmed. Walking through our woods, I remember thinking, “I don’t even know where to start.” Most owners have no written stewardship plan, nor do they seek professional advice about managing their woodlands.

“In my opinion, expert advice is what’s left out of these small forest properties,” says Jim Maginel, who, with his wife Mary, has owned and managed a 95-acre family forest and 22-acre silvopasture—an agroforestry system where livestock graze in wooded areas—in southern Illinois for decades.

When people make uninformed changes to the woodlands, they risk making mistakes that ultimately harm the health of the forest. Witnessing the consequences of poorly researched decisions is what led the Maginels to learn all they could about forest management.

In 1973 Jim’s father bought land in a strip-mining area in order to reforest it and convert it into a tree farm, Christmas trees in particular.

But without a professional assessment of the property, the pines they planted didn’t fit the soil, climate, or location. Despite many hours shaping the trees every year, most died. 


“He had good intentions, but it was not with [the necessary] observation and reflection and communication prior to getting a bunch of trees in the mail and going out with your friends and putting them in the ground,” Jim explains.

The pines that did survive have grown huge, however, and they’ve been repurposed — they shelter the family cemetery. “We call it the pine plantation,” Mary says. “It’s the perfect setting.” Without training, it can be difficult to know the complex mix of conditions that affect a specific piece of land. Even if, like me, you own less than an acre of woods, the decisions you make about your land contribute to the broader natural environment.

For family forest owners, especially those with larger acreages, help is available. Here are a few steps toward better forest management.



1. Learn about your land and its stewardship options

In many places, a government forester can walk your property with you; assess its health; help you identify trees, plants, soil, and light conditions; and offer suggestions about what you might do given your particular interests and goals.

In southeast Missouri, I called the local office of the Missouri Department of Conservation and asked for help evaluating the understorey in our woods, the possibility of growing milkweeds for monarch butterflies, and erosion into a nearby lake.

Douglas W. Tallamy, entomologist and author of The Nature of Oaks and Nature’s Best Hope, who advocates for a homegrown approach to conservation, says that even a single oak can have powerful ecosystem benefits. They help stabilize soil; sequester carbon; cleanse water; and shelter and feed a wide variety of animals, plants, birds, insects, and decomposers. Consequently, I especially wanted to ensure our oaks would regenerate for decades to come.

A “community forester” who specializes in residential land walked our property with me. She pointed out invasive plants because they can take the nutrients and light from native species, thus eliminating food for wildlife. Milkweeds will need a sunnier location. While a few small oaks do exist in the understorey, they’re overshadowed by faster-growing maples and elms that need less light. So some tree trimming or cutting is required if I want those oaks to grow.

By the end of our walk, I understood our property and its possibilities better. And she left all the decisions to me. 


Both Butler and the Maginels advise involving the whole family in a walk-through like the one I did. Many family forest owners are concerned about legacy and passing on their property intact to their heirs, so engaging them in observing and generating ideas can stimulate their interest and commitment.


2. Try generating other types of revenue than timber harvesting

According to the NWOS, many family forest owners are concerned about property taxes. Some would at least like the land to pay for that bill. Stewarding woodlands can be costly as well. Most often, people think about selling timber if their property is large enough. However, forests can generate revenue in other ways, maybe even more than by timber harvesting.

  • Forest products: Depending on which plants already grow on your property or what conditions will support growing, you might be able to sell maple syrup, walnuts, or pine straw.
  • Foraging: Wild medicinal or edible plants are popular, such as mushrooms, goldenseal, berries, or ramps. If you’re fortunate enough to find wild ginseng, small quantities may bring thousands of dollars.
  • Hospitality: You might allow others to forage, camp, or hunt game on your land.
3. Make a stewardship plan

Stewardship plans, also called forest management plans, are designed to help you achieve your goals for your property, whether it’s timbering, foraging, hunting, or creating birdwatching habitat.

They’re not cookie-cutter documents. You can create a simple, informal plan yourself. It doesn’t even need to be written. Mine is planting and monitoring oaks and milkweeds over a period of years and finding and implementing low-cost natural methods to mitigate erosion.

Plans can also be more complex and developed with help from a professional forester. Usually, these include a detailed property description, the owner’s goals, and a 10-year schedule of activities, such as harvests or prescribed burns, with their associated costs.

If you decide to develop a written stewardship plan for larger forests, you may be eligible for free professional expertise, cost-share programs or grants, and tax incentives.

4. Keep learning

Besides a walk-through with a forester and online information, university extension centres are a good place to learn about woodlands. Whether you own land or are just interested, they offer courses, workshops, and on-site visits to family forests where you can meet forest owners and learn about what works on their property.

The more I learn, the more I realize what I can do with our property — small as it is — to contribute to the sustainability of the ecosystem around me. Once you go from nature appreciation to immersion in the woods and wilds to stewardship, you start actively looking for opportunities, the Maginels tell me.

“Like picking up branches and making a brush pile that rabbits might like. Rather than passive, it’s become active,” says Jim. “And for some people, that action is rewarding. It gives you a sense of satisfaction.” With a smile, he says, “Watch out if you get hooked on it!”

Christina Leimer is an independent writer and researcher who’s interested in the human–natural world connection, intuition, end-of-life, and social innovation and change. You can reach her through her website.

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