Over the past several decades, Americans have been returning to the land in numbers not seen for most of a century. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 150,000 new landowners are purchasing newly divided forested lands each year, with 77 percent of them acquiring less than 20 acres and 96 percent managing less than 100 acres. Those new owners join the 10.4 million existing owners of family forestland, many of them farmers with woodlots included in their holdings.
Photo courtesy of blackbird/morguefile.com.
In contrast to past decades, landowners in 2012 are interested in managing their forested lands, albeit uninformed about how to develop management plans. Landowners who want to plan for the future of the land do have options.
The professional forester, equipped with computerized tools not available even a few years ago, can effectively provide levels of service affordable to even small parcel landowners. For landowners completely unacquainted with forest management planning, a new online mapping and planning tool, available free to landowners, has been developed by the American Forest Foundation (AFF) as a way to encourage landowners to plan for and maintain their forests and woodlots in a healthy condition.
A good place to start
The new owners of increasingly significant portions of America's farm and forestland tend to have different objectives for the land than family farm and forest owners in the past. In 2012, recreation, preservation of wildlife habitat, peace and quiet, environmental enhancement and other uses have come to trump harvesting, though harvesting may still be an important part of a forest management plan.
While pleased that many landowners have broadened their thinking about the use of their lands, those concerned about the overall health of America's forested lands are worried because a forest or woodlot ignored is a forest or woodlot in jeopardy. In the age of invasive species, fire hazard, habitat fragmentation and other forest health issues, active management of small acreages in the context of the larger forest is a front-burner issue.
The problem is that while family forest owners, including farmers with woodlots, own the largest portion of forests in America, with holdings amounting to about 251 million acres, "only 4 percent of woodland owners have any kind of management plan for their land," according to the AFF.
The need to promote overall forest health by improving the ability of individual landowners to plan effectively for their land led the AFF to develop what the foundation calls "a new, easy-to-use, interactive website designed to assist family forest owners map, protect and enjoy their woods."
The new site, http://mylandplan.org, provides a first step in a landowner's decision-making regarding forested lands. As the AFF puts forward, the forest management tool "is designed for woodland owners to help them learn about their land and identify their interests and goals, whether they include improving wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, birding, income or other interests."
Tom Martin, president and CEO of the organization, says, "We believe there are millions of woodland owners who are curious about what's happening in their woods, and yet aren't sure what to ask to get the answers they might need. Woodland owners own their property for a variety of reasons, and we want to be a place they can go to explore and find out more about their land. Once they begin to explore more fully what they want to do with their land, they will begin to identify goals for their land, which will lead to greater stewardship."
Once registered you are asked to drop in reference points of a map. Your property is then highlighted and ready to accept additional information.
Images courtesy of MyLandPlan.org, unless otherwise noted.
The heart of the AFF offering is a mapping tool. As explained by the AFF, "The exclusive mapping tool, a key part of , was designed to help users map woodlands and record features such as streams, trails, plants and wildlife. Through the tool, they can identify goals for their property and, once selected, the tool suggests recommended action steps and offers customized information to help reach these goals. The site also connects woodland owners to local professionals and organizations that can offer guidance and assistance as needed."
According to Amanda Cooke, media and marketing manager for the AFF, since was introduced, more than 70,000 acres of family forestland has been planned.
The professional forester
MyLandPlan.org is not meant to be a commercial tool. It is to be used to assist landowners in thinking seriously about the future of their forestland and encourage them to take the actions necessary to achieve goals for the land and, in the process, help improve the overall health of the larger forest most land parcels are part of.
An important service of the approach is connecting landowners to a variety of appropriate professionals who can help take the knowledge and information gained using the plan and make it a reality on the ground.
John Fogarty, owner of Fogarty Forestry, LLC in West Newbury, Vt., is one of the professional foresters the tool provides links to. Fogarty says that over the course of his career, he has worked with everyone from the landowner owning small farms and forests or sugar bushes of around 10 acres on up to the large industrial or municipal forest owner, who may own thousands of acres.
Fogarty expects to play an important role in improving forest health in coming years because it encourages small-scale landowners to begin thinking about their land and the need for active management to ensure that personal goals for the land are achieved. "It can be a great starting point," he says. "It can be great preparation in terms of understanding the work I do creating a complete forest management plan."
MyLandPlan.org directs you to appropriate service providers capable of more in-depth assistance when needed.
Forest management plans, Fogarty explains, are the "umbrella" under which other subplans are incorporated. Forest management plans typically have many parts to them, discussing not just timber, but addressing water quality and protection, recreational opportunities, legal facts and considerations pertinent to the landowner, soils and terrain, wildlife habitat, previous forest management activities on the property, operation recommendations and more.
Fogarty says, "All forest management plans start with the landowner. What are the owner's goals for the property? What do they want for it years from now? I use a questionnaire to help them figure these things out, as many come through my door not really having an idea what they want to do with their forest. Some do have very definite ideas about what the property is used for, but others need some help developing those goals."
When the map is ready, prompts guide you in adding distinctive features to the delineation of your property.
Once the landowner and the forester understand each other, the forester begins the process of creating a plan shaped to achieve the owner's goals. The process today is quite a bit different from what it used to be. "Forestry used to be a pencil-and-paper, paint-and-ax kind of profession, and just like the automobile of yesterday, this has changed dramatically. Foresters still use those tools, and any decent forester wouldn't dream of going into the woods without their compass, but they have added several high-tech tools into their cruising vests, most notably a field computer and/or a GPS unit," Fogarty says.
"Most field computers are ruggedized PDAs running some version of Microsoft's Windows Mobile. The field computer must be able to withstand extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry. Being brightly colored is also a bonus, as they can (and do) fall out of your vest unnoticed and the rest of your day turns into a scavenger hunt. Most field computers utilize a touch screen, with an integrated keypad for data entry. Most field computers also have an integrated GPS for use with whatever mobile GIS system is being used. Field computers will have storage card slots to store files, etc. The field computer needs to do two things for the forester: collect spatial data using the GIS/GPS system, such as the locations of trails, roads, stand boundaries, harvested areas, wetlands, cruise points, etc., or display where these features are, if they've been collected previously; and collect forest inventory data. Two programs are typically running at once: the GIS software and the inventory/cruising software," he explains.
"My field computer is a Trimble Nomad 900G with an integrated GPS and an extra storage card for storing all of my GIS files that I will use for any given project. I use ESRI's ArcPad 10 mobile GIS system, and Fountains Forestry's TwoDog PocketDog forest inventory software for cruising.
"Other forestry tools haven't changed at all," Fogarty continues. "Foresters still need to know how to use an ax and knife, we still use a compass and have to keep track of our pacing, we still use paint to mark trees to be harvested and paint boundary lines. I still use a Biltmore stick and tree calipers. And I always keep a notebook and pencil and paper map because they don't break and the batteries in my pencil have never run out. Forestry is still a profession where the old ways are taught in both school and the field because they've worked for generations."
Fogarty says, "Back at the office, data is transferred from the field computer to the desktop computer and analyzed. The forest management map, detailing stands and topography, is prepared using the original base map developed prior to going into the field, and GIS field data is incorporated. Stand boundaries are delineated, and other important collected features are added. A soils map is also created. The management plan is written using the map, the field notes and the field data. Silvicultural prescriptions for each stand are prepared using standard guides and past experiences. Pictures of areas of each stand, along with any wildlife, special places or problems seen are added to the plan. An operations/management schedule is proposed to the client for any forest management activities."
After all that, Fogarty says, a rough draft is delivered to the client for review. Any editing of the plan is done and the plan is bound. The plan and the maps are delivered to the client with any other applications/materials needed.
In addition to the standard forest management plan, Fogarty points out that there are other kinds of plans available to landowners, typically through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). As part of his service, Fogarty can help a landowner determine eligibility for the programs, some of which have funding available.
Planning for the future of even small parcels of forestland is important to both individual landowners and to the broader community in the forest of today. Using advanced tools like in association with the services of professionals like Fogarty, small parcel landowners can develop management plans for their forests capable of allowing for the realization of personal goals for the woodlands and, on a larger scale, the health of America's future forest.
The author is a longtime freelance contributor to Moose River Media.