America's Private Forests: Status and Stewardship

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Nearly 430 million acres of forests in the United States are privately owned, but the viability, and indeed the very existence, of these forests is increasingly threatened by population growth, sprawling urbanization, and patchwork development. Scientists, policymakers, and community leaders have begun to recognize the vital role of private forests in providing society with essential goods and services, from sustainable timber supplies to clean water. Yet despite the tremendous economic and ecological importance of private forests, information about their status and strategies for their protection have been in short supply.

America's Private Forests addresses that shortcoming, presenting extensive data gathered from diverse sources and offering a concise overview of the current status of privately owned forests in the United States. As well as describing the state of private forests, the book sets forth detailed information on a wide range of approaches to conservation along with an action agenda for implementing those strategies likely to be most effective. The book: •identifies the major threats to private forests in the United States •considers barriers to conservation •outlines the available tools and programs for promoting conservation •presents a "road map" to guide collective efforts for the conservation of private forests and their native biodiversity

Based on extensive research of existing literature as well as interviews and consultation with leading forestry and conservation experts, America's Private Forests is a unique sourcebook that offers a solid basis for discussion of threats to private forests along with an invaluable compendium of potential solutions. It will serve as an invaluable reference for all those working to conserve and steward forest resources, including forest owners and their consultants, conservation organizations, and agency personnel, as well as researchers and students involved with issues of forestry, biodiversity, land use, and conservation.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559639002
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Constance Best and Laurie A. Wayburn are co-founders of the Pacific Forest Trust, a conservation organization dedicated to preserving productive forestland, based in Santa Rosa, California.

John C. Gordon is Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University.

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Read an Excerpt

America's Private Forests

Status and Stewardship

By Constance Best, Laurie A. Wayburn, John Gordon


Copyright © 2001 The Pacific Forest Trust, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-901-9


Who Owns the Forest and Why?

Profile of Private Forestland Owners

The ownership of U.S. private forests is exceptionally diverse, as tables 1-1, 1-2, and 1-3 illustrate. In this chapter we will provide information that will promote understanding of the universe of owners. Those concerned with the future of private forests need to go beyond received wisdom and look closely at who owns what and why. The chapter closes with an analysis of recent trends and a discussion of implications for the future.

The data that exist to describe the nature of private forest ownership are useful to examine, but are not as complete as they could be. The primary current national source is a 1994 study led by Thomas Birch for the USDA Forest Service. This survey of private forest ownerships included in its base all of the private timberlands as well as key portions of other forests, estimating that there were around 9.9 million private ownerships holding 393 million acres of forestland (Birch 1996). The estimate of forestland acreage used by Birch is different from the usual estimate of acreage cited by the USDA Forest Service (424 million) because Birch started with the base of private timberland (358 million acres) and added to it a sampling of other forestland. Table 1-2 presents a snapshot of forest ownership by size classes of ownerships. Refer to appendix B, tables, for more ownership detail by state and region.

In addition to the Birch study, we utilize regional and subregional surveys and analyses of ownership characteristics from a variety of sources, which will be cited as we proceed. Unfortunately, there are many basic things that the data do not yet tell us, such as the median size of ownership, the average sizes of parcels within ownerships, and the income levels, races, and other demographic details of the individual owners. Nonetheless, a review of the literature presents us with very useful information for informing a strategy for conservation of private forests.

Private forests are generally separated into two categories: industrial and nonindustrial. This distinction can be somewhat confusing, since industrial in this context means a company that owns both forestland and mills to process forest products. Thus, industrial forestland may be held in million-acre tracts by a multinational corporation, or it may be a 160-acre parcel owned by a small local sawmill. A large oil company or institutional pension fund that owns forestland but does not own a wood-processing facility will be found in the nonindustrial category. The nonindustrial category encompasses land that may be held by an individual with 5 acres as well as hundreds of thousands of acres held by Alaska Native corporations. In some cases it is possible to tease some of these differences out of the data sets, but often the distinctions are difficult or impossible to determine.

Table 1-3, which describes ownership types compiled from the 1994 Birch study, provides some illumination on the kinds of entities that own forestland. Looking at this table, we can begin to appreciate the diversity of nonindustrial owners. While individuals and farms are the largest ownership types overall, the forest industry clearly has the most concentrated control.

It may be most useful to consider forest landowners not by distinctions of mill ownership, but rather by size. Large, medium, and small ownerships, whether with or without mills, tend to share common attributes within their size categories. Therefore, we will utilize the following categories for analysis of the characteristics of private forest landowners:

Residential Forest Owners: 1-9 Acres

This size ownership is essentially residential in nature. While these parcels retain some forest characteristics and contributions, from the point of view of ecological functionality and timber productivity they are effectively converted from forest use. Even with sporadic timber harvesting or ongoing wildlife management, very small forest tracts are dominated by residential uses, including buildings, exotic landscapes, and domestic animals. Tree management is generally more horticultural than silvicultural at this size.

Small Forest Owners: 10-99 Acres

This size ownership represents the average current tract size. This is also the size category experiencing the greatest growth in numbers of owners and acres represented. Though very fragmented in nature, these forest properties can still provide many major forest values. They can be managed for periodic timber or other forest-based revenue, though major harvest typically occurs only once or twice in an owner's lifetime.

Medium Forest Owners: 100-999 Acres

This class of forestownership can form the building blocks of larger, more functional forest landscapes. As individual holdings, these parcels can be managed for regular economic return for forest products more readily than can parcels of smaller size. This size ownership is akin to the "shrinking middle class," contributing acres through increasing subdivision to the swelling numbers of small forest landowners in the last twenty years.

Large Forest Owners: 1000+ Acres

At this threshold, forestland becomes more likely to be held for commercial timber production and decisions regarding its management are more likely to be driven by financial considerations than is the case with smaller ownerships. Although on a national basis this class of ownership has slightly decreased in extent, this trend is very regional in nature, with the North losing more large tracts to fragmentation and the South consolidating medium-sized tracts.

As shown in table 1-2, while almost 60% of forest owners own less than 10 acres, their impact on the forest landscape is a tiny 4%. At the other end of the spectrum, large forest landowners comprise just one-quarter of 1% of the total but control almost 40% of U.S. private forests.

If the residential owners' share of total private forest ownerships is excluded, the ownership picture changes to better reflect the realities of forest management and conservation. With an estimated forestland base of 376,700,000 acres having 4.1 million owners, the average parcel is 92 acres (versus 40 acres if the residential owners are included). Small landowners comprise 84% of owners and control 29% of the forest. Medium landowners comprise 15% of the total with 31% of the acres. The large landowners still number less than 1% while accounting for 40% of private forest (figures 1-1 and 1-2).

Why People or Businesses Own Forestland

The following charts based on the Birch 1994 data (figures 1-3 and 1-4) give us some indicators of the reasons different entities own forests. (Because of the way the Birch data is published, these and other data presented in this section include the 5.8 million residential forest owners, thereby providing some bias toward this group.) While the data are not crystal clear, they suggest that U.S. private forests are owned roughly equally by those with primarily "productive" or economic motives and those who own forests for "nonproductive" personal, cultural, and/or ecological values.

Almost 40% of owners, by far the largest block, state that their primary reason for owning forestland is simply that it is a part of their residence or farm. Another 23% characterize their primary reason as being for recreation or for the sheer enjoyment of owning forestland.

Just 20% of forest owners state that their primary reason for ownership is economic. These owners have forests either for timber (about 3%), real estate investment, or as a productive part of a farm or home, yielding timber, fence posts, or firewood. However, as figure 1-4 illustrates, this group of owners controls almost half of U.S. private forests, with timber production alone representing 30%.

Still, substantial forest acreage, often in the smaller ownership size classes, is held for its noncommercial values. In fact, included in the 16% of "other" uses is cultural use by Native Americans. (Other uses also include mineral extraction; for owners of mineral rights, the trees are incidental to other economic use.) Various surveys of forest landowners indicate that smaller landowners rank enjoyment of forest ownership highest compared with larger landowners. Although it is very difficult to generalize, it appears that as tract size and value and frequency of timber revenue increase, timber production becomes a primary reason for ownership. Nonetheless, most of those owners also have multiple goals, combining timber production and other values.

Some interesting variations show up when the primary reasons for ownership are compared with owners' statements of the benefits they desire to derive from that ownership in the next ten years. Questioned in this way, more owners indicate their intent to gain income from timber harvest, increasing the acreage oriented to timber production from 29% to 33%. Strikingly, while only 9% of owners state that land investment is their primary reason for owning forestland, 20% expect to reap the benefit of increased land value in the next decade. This 20% appears to be weighed heavily toward smaller landowners. All in all, many owners are expecting greater productive uses of their forests in the coming period, increasing to 45% of ownerships and 63% of forest acreage.

It is also worth noting that expected enjoyment of forest ownership markedly increased as a primary reason for ownership, from 14% of owners to 34% and from 7% of acreage to 16%. This increase is probably attributable to the responses of many whose primary reason for owning land in the first place was incidental to ownership of a residence or farm.

Timber Harvest Activities of Various Landowners

Looking at these data should be reassuring to those concerned about future timber supplies, as the vast majority of owners indicate their willingness to cut timber at some point. According to Birch (1996), 46% of forest owners, who own 78% of all forests, had previously harvested timber on their land. Table 1-4 shows that almost 60% of owners, with 86% of forest acreage, intend to harvest in the future. At the time of Birch's survey, only 11% of private forests were owned by people with no intent to ever harvest.

Figure 1-5 shows ownership organized by size class for both number of owners and acres in each class. We will consider timber harvesting further when we focus on the behavior and attitudes of individual nonindustrial owners in the next section.

In general, the harvest behavior of industrial and nonindustrial landowners is different. Industrial forestlands are owned primarily for fiber output to supply processing facilities; therefore fiber output is maximized to the degree possible. Nonindustrial forestlands are held for a wide variety of reasons. Ownership surveys find that in general NIPFs are not opposed to timber harvest In the South, for instance, historical rates of harvest for industry and NIPF owners are comparable (Alig et al. 1990a). However, current research indicates that NIPFs value their standing timber more than industrial owners. This seems to be due to the value NIPF owners put on nontimber forest resources, "receiving non market (non measured) benefits from holding timber in place" (Newman and Wear 1993). In other words, while NIPF owners will harvest timber, they also highly value the amenities provided by the forest itself.

Degree of Forest Management Planning by Landowners

The USDA Forest Service estimates that in 1993 5% of owners had written management plans for their forests. These owners-most likely from the same group that gave timber production as a primary reason for and benefit of forestland ownership-hold 39% of private forests. Forty-three percent of them are industrial owners and 57% nonindustrial. Most forest management plans focus on timber harvest. It is not known to what degree ecological resources are included. Given that so many NIPF owners have multiple goals for their forests, with timber harvest included but not primary, there are great opportunities to expand owner engagement in forest management planning if a greater emphasis is placed on overall forest stewardship than on commercial timber harvest.

Length of Forest Ownership

Greater ownership turnover tends to lead to reductions in parcel size and increased fragmentation of forestland. Forests are turning over faster than it takes for them to mature. As each new owner takes title, new goals for the land are set. Inconsistent forest management and even overharvesting over time can be the result. The dates forest owners of all types acquired their forestland show that more than 40% of owners acquired forestland for the first time since 1978. These recent acquisitions involved 23% of private forest acreage (Birch 1996; figures 1-6 and 1-7). Only 30% of forest acreage has been held forty-five years or more, in less than 10% of ownerships. We will look at some of the trends apparent in recent turnover at the end of this section.

When the diversity of private forest landowners and the diversity of their goals in forest ownership are considered, it becomes easier to understand the impact of changing ownerships on the forest itself. Aside from the clear trend of more ownerships and smaller parcel sizes at every size class, turn over in forestownership has other impacts. Whether large or small, industrial or nonindustrial, the land use decisions of each owner are imprinted on the forest and lasting in nature. The rate and intensity of timber harvest, road and home building, agricultural conversion, introduction of exotic species, and other activities often are compounded through time by turnover in ownership.

Focus on Nonindustrial Private Forest Owners

As of 1997, nonindustrial private owners held about 326.8 million acres of forestland, of which 290.8 million were classified as timberland. This represents 58% of all timberland. (See appendix table B-1 for state and regional details of forest and timberland ownerships by acres.) Some 72% of the nation's hardwood inventory and 30% of softwood are found on nonindustrial timberland. About 60% of the commercial timber stocking on NIPF land is hardwood. Statistics do not yet capture the stocks of noncommercial species or species occurring on "other forestland."

Nonindustrial ownerships are most numerous in the East. About 42% of the NIPF forests are in the south e m regions (comprising 70% of all forestland in the South) while 32% are in the North Central and Northeast regions (comprising about 67% of forestland in these states). Viewed another way, southern NIPFs own 49% of U.S. timberland; in the North Central and Northeast regions, they own about 40%. Western NIPF ownerships are 25% of total NIPF forests, controlling about 25% of forestland in their states.

Of the nontimberland held by private owners in the United States, 36% is in Alaska, largely held by Alaskan Native corporations. Another 25% is found in the Four Corners region (Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico), largely as pinyon-juniper woodlands; 15% is in California's woodlands; and 10% occurs in Texas, largely as mesquite woodlands. For most of the remainder of the nation, NIPF forests are almost entirely classified as timberland.

As already noted, nonindustrial forestland owners are especially diverse. This discussion focuses most of its attention on the vast majority of NIPF owners, including residential forest owners who are individuals or families. Separately below we will examine two other important NIPF owner types: institutional investors and Native Americans. In understanding individual nonindustrial forest landowners, perhaps the most important thing to grasp is that they are essentially no different in their attitudes and sociodemographic profiles from Americans in general. There are some important distinctions, however. Generalizing the characteristics of some 9 million individual Americans who own forests obviously requires oversimplification, but the available evidence suggests the conclusions below.


Excerpted from America's Private Forests by Constance Best, Laurie A. Wayburn, John Gordon. Copyright © 2001 The Pacific Forest Trust, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
Pt. 1 An Overview of America's Private Forests 1
Ch. 1 Who Owns the Forest and Why? 5
Ch. 2 The Nature of America's Private Forests 41
Ch. 3 Threats to Private Forests and Barriers to Their Conservation 97
Pt. 2 The Conservation Toolbox and How to Use It 117
Ch. 4 Public Programs and Policies for Private Forests 121
Ch. 5 Cultural Tools: Communication, Education, and Assistance 143
Ch. 6 Financial Mechanisms and Markets for Conservation 165
Ch. 7 An Action Plan to Accelerate the Conservation of Private Forests 187
Appendices 207
References 245
Index 255
About the Authors 269
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