Forestry Notes: Districts Facilitate Forest Succession Planning

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More than half of the nation’s forestland is privately owned, but in the coming decades, these acres will transition to a new generation of forest landowners. Many of these individuals do not have the same connection with the land that their parents and grandparents had. Will they accept the need to manage their woodlands? Will they see the value the forest provides?

According to recent data, “80 percent of family forest landowners want their land to stay intact and remain in the family. They have no intention or desire to sell their property.” Yet, only a small percentage of families invest the time to talk about how to transfer ownership and maintain forest health for future benefits. This leaves our forests vulnerable to fragmentation and ultimately to a change in land use.

There is important information to pass down, like understanding timber tax laws, conservation easement options, the value of having a forest management plan, available cost-share programs, and knowing local forestry professionals who can help with management. Perhaps most importantly, there is a need to share the benefits a forest provides, not only for the family but for the communities and wildlife that rely on it.

Forest succession planning involves a series of steps, often facilitated by a qualified professional armed with resources to address each step in the process. The most important step is the first step—initiating the conversation.

Workshops get the ball rolling

Oregon State University Forestry and Natural Resources Extension developed a Ties to the Land program several years ago, and many extension offices and conservation districts across the country utilize this program to cater to their respective audience. It includes professional speakers on estate planning, taxes, wills and offers tips on how families can have conversations as well as those dealing specifically with what type of use the landowner would like to see carried on.

In Portland, Ore., East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) partners with the Small Business Development Center at Clackamas Community College to offer a four-part workshop and one-on-one training to select landowners. The next session will be in Jan. and Feb. 2019. East Multnomah SWCD and the Small Business Development Center are underwriting the program so there is no cost to participants.

East Multnomah SWCD Land Legacy Program Manager Matt Shipkey says participants also have the option of engaging in a year-long course with the Small Business Development Center following the workshop. The district and the Small Business Development Center have also discussed the potential to create a regularly updated database of farm succession planning professionals and testimonial videos as resources for landowners interested in legacy planning.

In Michigan, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Benzie Conservation Districts have held workshops on forest succession planning in partnership with Michigan State University Extension, and the group follows the Oregon State Ties to the Land program. Conservation district forester Kama Ross co-sponsored the event last year and said she could relate to landowners’ questions and concerns.

“It is a very important topic, but one that not many families readily take the time and energy to discuss,” Ross said. “I am also a forest landowner with two parcels – one 84 acres, one 132 acres—that I have had to make hard decisions about. My children live out of state and are not interested in being active managers in the future. But the investment and timber resources will be there for them when I am gone.”

Offering that first-hand experience and personal touch opens communication and can build trust in the planning and navigation process.

The New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts (NHACD) employs a full-time resource conservationist to do resource assessments and develop conservation plans, which often ultimately lead to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) practices. During the process, the resource conservationist becomes familiar with the landowner objectives and the issues surrounding succession planning.

NHACD also gives referrals to Land for Good, which works with farmers and forest landowners on legacy programming and planning.

“Normally, the districts follow up with landowners implementing practices in any event, so a follow-up conversation would likely include successional planning if that issue was present at the beginning of the working relationship,” NHACD Past President Linda Brownson said.

Virginia connects families and land

Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) and the Virginia Cooperative Extension have teamed up with other partners to provide a “Land Transfer to Generation ‘NEXT’” program. It was modeled off of the Ties to the Land format eight years ago but has been modified and added to enough that the DOF and the extension office have branded and trademarked the program.

While it includes estate planning, tax implications and specific land value-related sessions, the two-day workshop includes more intimate moments with small group discussion and activities.

“We come at this from a resource side, but there’s another side that’s been personally and professionally rewarding, and that’s families,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Forestry & Natural Resources-Northern District Extension Agent Adam Downing said. “It’s a resource that once it’s lost from a family, it’s very difficult to get back. The woodland is kind of a glue of sorts to keep relationships working and keep the family land together.

“The discussion is hard to get started, but once you start it will progress to a complete plan,” Downing said.

The program has an application process and a different approach to the subject matter each day. Day one focuses on tools and sending participants home with homework, like determining the value of their land and comparing notes on how spouses feel about the land. The second day is focused more on peer-to-peer information, telling stories and reviewing real life situations.

“The real tipping point, I think, is making it their story,” Virginia DOF Forestland Conversation Manager Michael Santucci said. “When you bring it down to the family level and help them figure out why it’s important to them, they really get engaged.”

Downing said due to the difficult nature of getting discussion started, the program also includes instigator cards to help bridge the conversation for participants. The cards are used by DOF staff to initiate similar interactions out in the field when meeting with landowners and for extension staff to use when answering calls or providing resources.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring up this topic and if the door shuts, that’s fine, but if it’s open, we have an opportunity to have a long-term impact on that property that will last generations,” he said.

Story cards help bridge the gap

Pennsylvania State University College’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management faculty have created picture story cards to assist workshop participants and individuals in conversations about succession planning.

Extension Specialist in Forest Resources Sanford Smith developed the 52-card forest story card set in 2007 to bridge a generation and language gap between him as a professor and the public he works with, including professionals, educators and youth. Their use has grown over the years to include Extension and natural resources professionals who use the cards as a starting point for discussion about what they value in their forests and the planning that is needed for the future.

The idea is that in a workshop, group or learning session, the leader asks a question and each person uses the pictures to express their answer. Called a “visual survey” method, from there discussion can begin about the values they have in forests.

“If a picture’s worth a thousand words, we’re using pictures to elicit a thousand words,” Smith said.

Interim Director of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State and Assistant Research Professor of Private Forests Management Allyson Brownlee Muth helped modify the original deck of cards into a “heritage set” by swapping out some pictures with those that might more directly be part of legacy planning, like a will or a tombstone.

“Children often don’t want to think about what happens when parents are gone and the decisions that have to be made,” Muth said. “They’re not ready, so the way we chose to start was to help people with that family communication piece. Getting on the same page with what’s important and what you want the future to be helps people find commonality.”

Read more on this topic in the latest edition of Forestry Notes.

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