Who Own's New Hampshire's Forests and Why?

Jack Savage | April 28, 2012

Certified Tree Farmer P.J. O’Rourke wrote an entertaining piece in the Wall Street Journal recently in which he attempts to explain why he owns land in New Hampshire. He concluded by noting , “ I can’t give up my estate….I’ve formed an inviolate bond with the land. The bank calls it a mortgage.”

O’Rourke first became a New Hampshire forestland owner three decades ago, and in so doing joined the ranks of thousands of others.  In fact, 68 percent of the state’s estimated 4.8 million acres of forestland is owned by private individuals and families.

And while the pleasure of being on the debt end of a mortgage can be one privilege of forestland ownership, there are presumably other motivations as well. At the annual Black Fly Breakfast (a gathering of the forestry faithful) this past week, Merrimack County UNH Cooperative Extension Forester Tim Fleury gave a presentation about what we know about New Hampshire’s private forestland owners, including some survey results about their motivations for being landowners. Fleury and his colleague Karen Bennett compiled these statistics from several recent surveys and datasets, including the National Woodland Owner Survey, the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data, Family Forest Research Center and the Sustaining Family Forests Initiative.

Among those who own more than 10 acres, almost all are over the age of 45. Nearly half (47 percent) are over the age of 65. More than half (53 percent) of New Hampshire forestland owners have a college degree and nearly half (49 percent) earn between $50K-$99K per year.

So our forestland owners are older, better educated and with more income than average.  (There was no data suggesting that forestland owners are also better looking than average, but that may only be because of a lack of data.)

Forestland owners are in it for the long-term;  some 75 percent have  owned their land for at least a decade.

And here’s a statistic that’s particularly interesting:  over 80 percent those who own more than 10 acres of land list ‘beauty/scenery’ as their reason for doing so, closely followed by more than 70 percent who list ‘privacy’.  What scares the forest products industry is that less than 10 percent of those landowners say that ‘timber production’ is a reason they own forestland.

Which is not to say that they aren’t cutting timber, necessarily.  More than half (54 percent) have in fact conducted a timber harvest on their land.

The dominant reason for harvesting, reported landowners, was to improve the quality of the remaining trees. Having a stand of mature trees, and seeking to remove trees damaged by a natural event (ice storm, wind or insect damage, for example) also drive the decision to harvest.

That leads us to what Fleury has dubbed the “Bennett Life Cycle Theory,”  named after UNH Cooperative Extension forestry specialist Karen Bennett. Bennett has observed, and Fleury concurs, that what drives many private landowners to pursue a timber harvest is some change in their own lives. They send a child to college, or retire, or lose a job, or perhaps are looking at buying more land and it becomes time to consider converting the timber asset into cash.

 “We expend a lot of time and energy to motivate people to act, to steward the forest resource appropriately, including harvesting,” Bennett said. “People tell us they don’t own timber or cut timber for financial reasons, but what we observe in their behavior is that they do.”

Bennett’s point is that in order to best promote good forest stewardship, forestry educators need to understand what motivates landowners and be ready to interact with them at the right moment in time. A well-managed forest can generate needed revenue through a sustainable harvest while improving forest health.

And from what I hear, if you own a piece of New Hampshire forestland long enough it might make you smarter, richer and better looking.

Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire’s Conservation Magazine published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at jsavage@forestsociety.org.