Mom and Pop Forests Struggle to Make Responsible Harvesting Pay

11/3/2014

By ERICA GIES

 

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“My boys grew up playing in the forest,” says Harold Macy. He, along with his wife Judy Racher, has managed 1,000 acres of Douglas fir-covered, government-owned land on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, since 1998. “They weren’t mall rats, they didn’t play video games. They love the outdoors, even now.”

It’s that love that spurs many woodlot managers in North America. As in the case of Macy and Racher, forest management is often part of family culture, passed down through the generations, with the modest income serving as a nest egg.

The generational transfer brings challenges as well as benefits. Forestry practices are changing, with sustainability an increasingly common – if hard to define – goal. At the same time, changing economics, based partly on the pyramid nature of inheritance, also makes family forest management difficult for the 10 million or so family forest owners in the US, who own more than a third of US forestland, according to the Family Forest Research Center.

Macy emphasizes that, for his family, forestry blends business with a spiritual component. While his career has been grounded in the pragmatic realities of forest management, he says that he still feels “a spiritual connection” to trees, particularly to the big stand of Douglas firs outside his house.

“I’ve been looking at them for 30 years,” he says. “They’re alive, they’re growing; I’m alive, I’m growing. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

For the Macys, this responsibility continues from generation to generation. Although they lease their land, they can plan long-term because British Columbia extends its leases in 20-year tranches. In some cases, these long-range decisions cross generations, as forest stewardship passes from parents to children.

Macy, who is 68, notes that passing the torch – not to mention the stewardship of thousands of trees – can be challenging. Because the woodlot license is held in the family trust, all four of his sons are equal partners, leading to a question over which of them should take charge of the forest – or, alternately, whether the family should sell the lot and put the money in the family trust.

Fortunately, the entire family agrees that the natural choice for Macy’s successor is his third son, Ben Racher. A consultant to the big timber companies, Racher has the flexibility – and the knowledge – needed to manage the family woodlot. He’s also local: he lives just 60 miles from the property, with his wife and two daughters.

Balancing Legacy and Responsibility

The sense of multi-generational responsibility to the land also looms large for Bob Torrans, a family forester in Arkansas. He owns about 350 acres of woodlands, some of which have been passed down in his family for four generations, and some of which he bought himself.

The Torrans’ family forest is not just a physical legacy; it’s also a philosophical one. Torrans’ father, a World War II veteran, left him with a keen understanding of the importance of conservation. “My father was sent to the Philippines in World War II,” he says. “When he saw what had been done there from a timber standpoint, he simply couldn’t cut a tree. Between war and harvesting, the Philippines had just been decimated.”

Torrans’ father tried to give each of his five children an appreciation of the forest, as well as a significant tract of land to manage. While none of them work in forestry full-time, caring for their tree stands remains important to all of his children.

For his part, Bob Torrans began moderate harvesting of his property when he realized that the timber industry has vastly changed. During his father’s time, “They had one method of harvesting, and that was to clear cut and walk away. In his generation, they did not replant a tract. They did not manage it for biodiversity.” Now, he notes, harvesting standards have vastly improved.

Torrans learned about the increasing sophistication of forest stewardship from John Cook, a childhood friend who went to work for the local woodlands division of Domtar, a Montreal-based paper company. “Slowly, over a period of years, he showed me what they were doing with other tracts they were managing,” Torrans says. “I was sufficiently impressed that I allowed him to take on one tract [in 2005]. They did a good job, and we kept adding tracts.”

Multi-generational responsibility goes both ways; Bob and his wife DeMita are 49, and are not ready to pass on their land. But he says that, when he dies, he plans to leave it in trust to their three children. “It is my hope that it will remain in trust and Domtar will continue to manage it in perpetuity,” he says.

Oregon-based foresters Rick and Audrey Barnes also emphasize the importance that family has had on their work. When the pair bought 1,260 acres of Oregon woodlands in 2000, their decision was partly inspired by their desire to find a place that they could enjoy with their daughter Jenni, who was in high school at the time. “We both love the outdoors and our daughter loves the outdoors,” Barnes explains. When the time comes, Barnes says he hopes to pass on the land on to Jenni, who is now married and has two daughters of her own.

“They come down quite often and help us on the tree farm,” he says. Jenni has told her father that, now that she has children, she can understand why he babies every tree, he says. “To her, it’s not a tree farm; it’s a legacy,” Barnes says. “This really is important to her to pass those stewardship values along to her children.”

Making Ends Meet

Maintaining a family forest isn’t just an intergenerational struggle; it’s also an economic one. Macy, for example, doesn’t make his living from his woodlot. He has supported his family by working for an industrial timber producer and, later, as a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a nurse. That said, their lease management deal made it possible for the family to grow much of their own food and – of course – the wood that they used to heat their home.

Macy expects that his son Ben will likewise need to continue other work along with his woodlot management. Nevertheless, he says his son will likely experience a lifestyle benefit: “Ben will be able to supplant his income and cut back his hours for his consulting company,” Macy says. “He’ll be able to do more sustainable forestry and less industrial forestry.”

Barnes, like Macy, works in forest management, so his occupation and his stewardship go hand in hand. He’s a forestry consultant, writing stewardship plans for a variety of landowners, from private individuals to institutional investors. He has harvested his own lot five times, cutting some older trees and thinning. However, by culling modestly and paying close attention to regrowth, the Barnes family has actually been able to increase its holdings. “We have more volume on our property today than in 2000,” Barnes says. “It’s important to us that we try to not harvest more than we’re growing.”

Part of the reason for managing the resource conservatively is as a hedge against unforeseen expenses in retirement, or even their granddaughters’ college funds. “Hopefully we don’t need it, but to some extent, it’s a bank account,” Barnes says.

Torrans’ multi-generational family forest also highlights the changing economic realities of woodlands management, as well as the challenges presented by the increase in family members. As generations pass, the inheritance splits into progressively smaller shares, diluting the income – and the decision-making responsibility – of individual family members.

Torrans’ great-grandfather, a full-time forester, made his living off the land, but the subsequent generations have had to find other ways to make ends meet. Torrans’ grandfather supplemented his income with a hardware store, while his father made his living with a Mayflower moving franchise, which he bought in 1951. The money Torrans earns from the 350 acres varies from year to year, but averages somewhere in the range of $20,000 annually, he says.

Bringing Values to Business

For family foresters, the connection to the forest means that they often must make painful decisions about harvesting. To cut a tree, foresters make a notch on one side and cut from the other, leaving a “hinge” of wood to direct the tree’s fall. “When that hinge breaks, it makes this ripping, screeching sound,” Macy says. “To hear an 80-year-old tree rip its last connection with the earth, it’s a heart-rending sound. And that thump when the tree hits the ground. It’s so inert, going from a living thing to an obviously very dead thing.”

Despite his mixed feelings, Macy continues to harvest trees, balancing the greater good against the bottom line. Each woodlot leaseholder in BC has a management plan with objectives aligned with provincial and national laws, such as leaving a tree buffer around streams to protect water quality and fish stocks. Macy’s objective is to build a demonstration forest, managing the land to explore the environmental impact of various tree-harvesting methods. As such, he conducts harvesting experiments on different pieces of his land, exploring the relative costs and benefits of patch cuts, strip cuts and selective thinning.

Other foresters feel the connection that Macy alludes to. Torrans and Barnes, for example, both belong to stewardship communities. Torrans is a member of Four States Timberland Owners Association, a group managed by Domtar, which helps landowners qualify for the stringent Forest Stewardship Council certification. Barnes is a member of the American Tree Farm (ATF) system, a 75-year-old program that certifies US family woodland owners.

Earlier this year, ATF honored the Barnes’ forest with a regional “tree farm of the year” award. Their farm stood out both because of its biodiversity and because the Barnes invest a lot of time in education, showing around many groups of people, including geologists, mineral clubs, high school groups, Boys and Girls clubs, and forestry students.

But perhaps the most significant factor contributing to the ATF award is the family’s stewardship, particularly the reclamation work they’ve done on an old nickel mine on the property. “My wife didn’t want anything to do with that,” Rick Barnes recalls. “But now it’s one of our favorite pieces. To see how far it’s come from a recently mined property to a growing, beautiful forest – we get a lot of satisfaction from that.”

Erica Gies is an independent reporter who covers water and energy for The New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American and other publications.