Who Will Own Southern Forests in the Future?

Findings from the Southern Forest Futures Project about family forests and industrial ownership

The forest products industry divested about three-fourths of its timberland holdings between 1998 and 2008, the largest ownership transition in the last century. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
The forest products industry divested about three-fourths of its timberland holdings between 1998 and 2008, the largest ownership transition in the last century. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Forest ownership in the South has changed substantially over the past decade, raising questions about future landowner objectives and approaches to forest management — and ultimately about the retention of forest lands.

Chartered by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station along with the Southern Group of State Foresters, the Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) examined a variety of possible futures and how they might shape southern forests and their many ecosystems and values.

How will forest land ownership in the South change in the future? What are the implications for forest management and forest sustainability? Chapter 6 of the SFFP technical report examines the recent dynamics of forest ownership, develops forecasts of potential future changes, and identifies some implications of these changes for forest conditions and management.

Key Findings:

  • Private landowners hold 86 percent of the forest area in the South, with two-thirds of this area owned by families or individuals.
  • Fifty-nine percent of family forest owners own between 1 and 9 acres of forest land, but 60 percent of family-owned forests are in holdings of 100 acres or more.
  • The average size of family forest holdings is 29 acres. Ongoing parcellation and fragmentation through estate disposal and urbanization will continue to alter forest management in the South.
  • Two-thirds of family forest land is owned by people who have harvested and sold trees from their land.
  • The largest gain in ownership was realized by timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts.
  • Forest products industry divestitures were likely driven by a combination of factors including mergers, alleviation of timber-scarcity concerns, new technologies for reducing the cost of fiber acquisition, redeployment of capital, and desire to reduce tax burdens.
  • As a result of the transfer of holdings from the forest products industry to timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts, forest land held by corporations is now a more liquid asset class and will likely trade more frequently in the future. If this holds, individual corporate forest holdings could decline in size over time.
  • Although the forest products industry land base was long perceived to be a stable and predictable component of the forest landscape in the South, corporate lands may become less stable and more changeable with implications for both timber and nontimber values of forest lands.
  • Increased liquidity of forest assets argues for increased monitoring of ownership changes and of forest land transaction values to better understand the conservation implications of economic trends.

Read the full text of the chapter.

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