Story by Melinda Gable and Lauren Ward

For more than 40 years, the National Woodland Owner Survey (NWOS), produced by the US Forest Service, has served as the official census of family forest owners in the United States, driving policy and conservation initiatives at the federal, state, and local level while influencing media coverage, corporate sustainability initiatives, and public perception. This well-intentioned report has generated a distorted narrative about what constitutes a forest, let alone a forest landowner. Although the NWOS is the most thorough assessment of family forest ownership in America, the Forest Landowners Association believes the methodology and summary reports are flawed in portraying an accurate depiction of family forest acres and owners in America. As a result, skewed information is disseminated to the media, NGOs, and policy makers, where it is accepted at face value. In this post, we break down a few of the alarming facts that debunk the popular narrative about family forests in the United States.

Myth: One acre of land with 10 trees is a forest

In evaluating the characteristics of America’s family forest owners, the NWOS casts a wide net. The survey asks respondents to report how many acres of “wooded” land they own, based on:

  • Land at least 1 acre in size, 120 feet wide, and with at least 10 trees per acre
  • Land at least 1 acre in size, where trees were removed and trees will grow again

The outcome is a summary of wooded land owners’ characteristics of 10 acres and up, all lumped together to portray the narrative of family forests in America. This is problematic because it conveys that the reasons for ownership and activities of a 10-acre woodland owner are the same as a 500-acre or 5,000-acre forest landowner. The above qualifications apply to many residential homeowners whose acreage may include wooded land, thus lumping someone with a smattering of trees with woodland owners of actively managed forest. Presenting family forests under the same umbrellas and suggesting they all share the same reasons for ownership, challenges, or interest in economic and environmental benefits with their land ignores the vast differences of managing properties ranging from small wooded lots to large contiguous forests. As a result, the NWOS produces a skewed narrative of family forests. This leads to misinformed policies and initiatives aimed at addressing sustainability, management and conservation needs of small wooded landowners as well as those with larger working forests.

Myth: Wooded land has the same environmental and economic value as forestland

NWOS methodology over-represents small, economically and environmentally dormant holdings. By considering small plots of land that might only contain a smattering of trees as a “forest,” the NWOS includes family ownerships in their sampling that might not themselves view or treat their land as forestland. In fact, throughout the survey, the NWOS refers to the ownership of the respondents land only as “wooded” and never as “forestland.” Yet the statements and reports it produces based on the survey are about family-owned forests, not wooded land. While a stand of 10 or even 50 acres of “wooded land” provides some environmental benefits, a tract of that size does not provide the scale necessary to produce meaningful contributions to the economic and environmental benefits that working forests generate. By lumping small wooded ownerships together with large forest ownerships in the survey analyses, findings based on NWOS data over-report the ownerships that are economically and environmentally dormant. Thus the forest landowners that do manage their land for markets, maintain best management practices, and generate ecological benefits are marginalized. As a result, we see policies that do not address market realities and conservation activities of American working forest landowners. This also creates a perception by corporations and consumers that America’s wood supply coming from family forests is not managed sustainably.

Myth: 290 million acres of forest in America are owned by 10.6 million families

Working with such broad criteria for categorizing a “forest” the NWOS identifies 10.6 million families that collectively own 290 million acres or 36 percent of America’s forestland. Though this statistic is technically accurate based on the NWOS definition of wooded land, it is not representative of family ownerships that use their forestland as a sustainable economic and environmental asset. With this definition, owners of suburban and fragmented “wooded” land are given more consideration than those of true working forests owners. The fact is the majority of family owners hold only a small fraction of total forest acreage. A closer examination of NWOS reported numbers of America’s 10.6 million family ownerships reveals that more than half own less than 10 acres, with 6.6 million owning just 1 to 9 acres. An additional 2.8 million families own between 10 and 49 acres. Together, these 9.4 million ownerships only account for 80 million acres of “wooded land” – approximately only one-quarter of the 290 million acres of family forests in the United States. As a result, the NWOS over-represents the characteristics and activities of small-scale wooded acreage and forests. The USFS is presenting a narrative that allows the majority of owners – who speak for only a small minority of forest acres – to speak for family forestlands as a whole.

As the size of a landowner’s holding increases in acreage, so too does the likelihood that they participate in important forestry activities.

The remaining small but vital segment of 1.2 million landowners hold approximately 205 million acres of forest and are more likely to own and manage their working forests with a holistic approach – financially, environmentally and socially. In fact, NWOS data show that as the size of acreage holding increases, landowners demonstrate greater stewardship of the land (see right, from Butler et al., 2016). NWOS research gets one thing right: the prevalence of important forest activities, such as seeking management advice, implementing management plans, and participating in cost-share programs, all increase as land holdings increase. But because the NWOS lumps all landowners together, it reports that only 8 percent have a management plan and only 7 percent have implemented that plan. The statistics and narrative based on the self-reported results from the “National Woodland Owners Survey” should be that of wooded landowners instead of “forestland” owners? A distinction should be made between the overwhelming number of respondents who fall into the category of 10 to 49 acres of ownership.

Fact: Five percent of ownerships account for 57 percent of family forest acres

What the NWOS really demonstrates is that a small minority of landowners manage the majority of forest acres, yet their ownership interests are overshadowed by the many owners of smaller, disparate forest parcels. Consider these statistics:

  • Family forests of 100 acres or more account for only five percent of total ownerships, but they manage 57 percent of family forest acres.
  • One-half of one percent (0.5 percent) of ownerships is of 500 acres or greater, managing over 25 percent of family forest acres.

The largest family forests are among the most important economically and environmentally. These ownerships are large, uninterrupted tracts of contiguous forests – quite apart from the fragmented wooded lots on the fringe of urban and suburban areas.

Backyard woodland in the suburbs vs. a managed, contiguous forest

Should a suburban backyard woodland be considered the same as a managed contiguous forest?

This matters because a 10-acre plot cannot sustain the recovery of an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, nor meaningfully contribute to the restoration of longleaf pine across the Southeast, nor have the capacity of trees to contribute to the forest economy, the same way that a single owner of 500, 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 acres can. To solve landscape-level problems, policy, federal funding, NGO, and corporate initiatives would be better focused on forests that have the scale to meaningfully contribute to America’s economic and environmental well-being. The result? The NWOS gives undue weight to the opinions and activities of small-scale landowners, contributing to the misinformed narrative about what is really happening across the vast acreage of U.S. family forests.

Every forest acre counts, but not all forest acres are equal

Being a family forest landowner means being a steward of some of America’s most majestic landscapes and precious natural resources. The Forest Landowners Association believes landowners of all sizes contribute to the overarching mosaic of forestland across the United States. Our purpose is to advocate policies that enable those who own and manage their working forests with a holistic approach – financially, environmentally and socially – to fulfill their family’s forest legacy and pass on the tradition to future generations. Until the popular narrative tells the story of America’s true forest stewards, policy will continue to prescribe solutions to the wrong problems. When family forests provide such public good, it matters that we get the narrative, and in turn the policies, correct.

What Comes Next?

In 2018, the Forest Landowners Association is conducting its own survey of family forest landowners to better illustrate the characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors of those who own the majority of America’s family working forests. Our survey findings will be detailed in the January/February 2019 issue of Forest Landowner magazine. The results of the FLA survey will reveal the true activities and values of these forest stewards. A new narrative, representative of our family forests, finally could provide the ability to create policies and initiatives that uplift, rather than constrain, the stewards of America’s private family forests.