Management Strategies for Family Forests

Climate, Forests and Woodlands March 16, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

An Ohio forest
Figure 1. Millions of American families own forested land.

Written by Eli Sagor, University of Minnesota

About Family Forests

The term "family forests" refers to forested or wooded property owned by individuals or families. This same ownership group is sometimes referred to in research as non-industrial private forest landowners. Family forests account for about 60% of the nation's forested and wooded land, the vast majority of which is in ownerships smaller than 500 acres. The decisions that the nation's 10.4 million family forest owners make about the care and management of their land have important impacts on wildlife habitat, forest health, water quality, timber supply, carbon sequestration and storage, and countless other natural resource issues.

Family forests face some daunting challenges when it comes to preparing for and managing the effects of climate change. Economies of scale on small properties can make the per acre cost of managing insect or disease outbreaks disproportionately high. While they may retain a professional forester in preparing for and administering a timber sale, most family forest owners do not employ a professional to assist with day-to-day monitoring or management of their woods as other industrial owners, public agencies, Indian tribes, and landowners often do.

Management Strategies

For owners of family forests, a few specific management strategies rise to the top of the priority list:

  • Monitor your woods carefully. Most of the effects of climate change will manifest first in your woods as forest health problems, as stress from changing conditions weakens trees and reduces their ability to naturally fend off insect and disease threats. You'll want to watch for signs of stress, new insect and disease outbreaks, and new invasive species, among other things. Read more about how a changing climate can affect tree health and specifically what to monitor in your woods.
  • Help your trees help themselves: Increase resilience. Trees are remarkably effective at fending off most native insect and disease threats, but only if they're healthy. Trees gain energy through their foliage, so making sure your trees have plenty of room to grow (through periodic thinning, strategic firewood cutting, and the like) as developing large crowns will increase their natural resilience. Maintaining a diversity of tree species and ages on your property will also help, as not all trees will respond the same way to changing conditions. Read more on our promote resilience to change and climate change resilience pages.
  • Be proactive: Consider new native or near-native species for plantings. Trees live a long time, and they don't move around. The trees you plant now will need to be well adapted not only to today's conditions (to grow and thrive early in life) but to conditions several decades from now as well. As you plan new tree plantings, look at the best estimates of future conditions in your area and consider species that you might not have otherwise considered. A few caveats though: Whatever you plant has to survive this year's most difficult conditions first. So there's a limit to how far you can move a tree species from its current range. Also, be aware of the debate about assisted migration. Consulting with a professional first, and being aware and informed are important. Read more on our climate change facilitation and experimenting with non-native trees pages.
  • Talk to other local landowners and natural resource professionals. The best strategies to prepare for a changing climate may vary from place to place. Making connections to other local landowners and professionals will be a good way to stay abreast of emerging issues and strategies to deal with them locally. A local woodland owner association, Cooperative Extension office, or state natural resources (or forestry) agency may all be good first points of contact.

Summary

The first effects of a changing climate are likely to show up in our woods and forests as insect- and disease-related problems. Although there are some daunting challenges associated with managing these threats on a large number of relatively small ownerships, family forest owners also have a great advantage: Passion and commitment to leaving their land in better shape than they found it. The related pages below, and the other pages in this section, should give you a good start on planning for the future of your land under uncertain and changing conditions.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.