Holiday season perfect time to ponder future of your forestland

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When families gather over the holidays, there are lots of conversations, but one subject they seldom talk about if the clan owns woodlands is the future of those tree-covered tracts, according to a forest stewardship expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The holidays are a perfect time to take a walk in the woods with your heirs and talk about your land and what's important to you, suggests Allyson Muth, program associate for the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program, which is based in the college's School of Forest Resources.

"Seventy percent of Pennsylvania's forestland is held by individuals, families, hunting clubs and other private groups," she said. "Many of the trees we see around us and enjoy are there because someone has a personal affinity for the land and its trees and a commitment to caring for them.

"Heirs usually want to maintain the legacy of previous generations, but often they don't feel included in decision-making and lack preparation for becoming the next forestland owner."

A recent study conducted by the School of Forest Resources showed that many of the state's private landowners are thinking about the future of their forestland, Muth pointed out.

"Our state's forest owners are quick to express concern over what will happen to their land when they pass it forward to the next generation," she said. "However, we see few taking meaningful actions to plan accordingly."

In the 2010 "Exploring the Private Forestlands of Pennsylvania" study, 53 percent of current forestland owners surveyed told Penn State researchers they intend to leave their land to more than one heir. Under this scenario, Muth noted, land that long was cared for to meet one or two persons' values is suddenly viewed differently.

"The disposition of the land can cause controversy and strife in a family, because often heirs have different plans and agendas," she explained. "As a current forest landowner, talking with your heirs about what's important to you can head off trouble.

Muth urges woodland owners to start the discussion by revealing what they love about their forest. "Tell your family why your land is important to you and maybe relate a funny or moving story," she said. "Ask them to do the same. You may find in your conversation that your land is just as important to your heirs as it is to you.

"You may discover that planning for the future of your land becomes a shared endeavor that your family gladly embraces. Hopefully your heirs realize this process is better than just wishing them luck when your will is read."

There are many resources available when one is ready to engage in the estate or succession planning process. "Forest Stewardship Bulletin #13: Estate Planning" is one offered by the Penn State Extension Renewable Natural Resources Team. Visit the Web at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uh105.pdf to download a copy.

Free copies also are available from the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program. Send an email to RNRext@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Forest Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802.

"The most important step for the future of your woods is to have the gumption to start the conversation," Muth said. "Land is a finite and valuable resource. Its future depends upon the actions and aspirations of the current holders. Tell that story to those who you hope will care for it after you."
 

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Last Updated December 14, 2011