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Small forestlands benefit all Oregonians, but their owners need more support

Every day some 70,000 Oregonians go to work so the rest of us have clean air and water, abundant wildlife, and beautiful views. These are the hardworking teachers, doctors, farmers, bookkeepers, firefighters and others who own small woodlands -- forests of 10 to 5,000 acres, many of them surrounding rural towns and agricultural valleys.

Clackamas County boasts more than 217,000 acres of small woodlands owned by more than 7,000 property owners like Gilbert Shibley and Merrily Enquist. Gilbert Shibley has been managing forested property south of Estacada for 40 years – 94 acres with his wife, and another 254 acres with his sister. This is land his family has been adding to for the last 148 years, beginning with two of Shibley’s great-grandfathers who arrived over the Oregon Trail. Merrily Enquist is another 4th generation owner of some 300 forested acres south of Molalla where she grows both timber and Christmas trees. Says Enquist, “There’s something very special about holding inherited land. There is both a bond with the past and a responsibility to work the property responsibly, both for current benefits and to honor the work and sacrifice of my ancestors.”

While we might think of Oregon’s private forests as dominated by large landowners, owners of small forested properties account for about 40 percent of Oregon’s privately-owned forestland, contributing up to 15 percent of Oregon’s annual timber harvest. What’s more, of all land uses, forested watersheds do the best job of protecting water quality. Often located near populated metro areas like Portland, Eugene and Roseburg, these lands are critical not only to our environment, but also to our economic and social well-being and common identity as Oregonians.

Passed in 1971, the landmark Oregon Forest Practices Act continues to set the nationwide standard for ensuring planting of new trees following logging and protection of forest streams and fish and wildlife habitat. Though all Oregon forest owners follow the Forest Practices Act, small landowners’ wide range of management styles provides tremendous diversity in our forests.

Sadly, today most forest landowners face increasing financial pressures. Their challenges include difficult log markets, a decreasing number of mills to buy logs, fire protection, and other management costs.

Forestlands near our urban areas passing from one generation to the next

Nearly half of Oregon’s small woodland owners are 65 or older, and 75 percent are over 55. That means 2.5 million acres of Oregon forests are likely to change hands soon. Many of these lands are near developed areas and are likely to be converted to other uses – with permanent loss or degradation of the forest values Oregonians cherish. That’s because quite often the inheriting generation doesn’t have the cash assets necessary to pay estate taxes, isn’t interested in managing the land as forest or lacks the necessary expertise.

These families may realize income from a timber sale only once or twice in a lifetime, but face ongoing management expenses -- for road maintenance or fire protection, for instance. In addition, many voluntarily make investments in fish or wildlife restoration projects.

About 300,000 acres of Oregon forest are inside urban growth boundaries or other development zones. As forestlands become fragmented, the likelihood they'll be managed for forest values declines. Fire protection becomes more costly and complex, and the risk of introducing invasive species goes up. What can be done?

Keeping our forests healthy and intact is of high interest to the Oregon Department of Forestry. We work with other agencies and the public to help private landowners comply with regulations, enhance natural resources, and develop long-term management plans to meet their goals.

Ours is a one-stop regulatory approach; the Forest Practices Act's “best practices” meet federal Clean Water Act Standards and other laws. We're also leading development of a uniform forest management plan landowners can use to meet the requirements of multiple agencies, and that independent organizations can use to certify that forestland is managed sustainably. Such certification is an important timber marketing tool.

Other ways to help small forest landowners

Passing forestland on to the next generation is a process with financial, legal and emotional dimensions. A “Ties to the Land” succession planning education program for family forest landowners is available through Oregon State University to help prepare family forest owners for intergenerational transfer.

While many ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water and habitat for fish and wildlife originate on private forestlands, those who own, manage, and restore these lands historically have been compensated only through markets for traditional products like timber. Many organizations are exploring ways of compensating landowners for providing “ecosystem services” such as clean, cool water, or forests’ capacity to mitigate climate change by storing carbon.

Oregon’s population is expected to double over the next several decades. We all know that our forests will not last unless we work to protect them. Helping family-owned forests stay intact as forests will benefit all Oregonians.

Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.