Got woods? If so, you are in good company.

Officials in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia report that the number of private citizens owning forestland in the Chesapeake region has reached an all-time high.

That's because millions of average citizens now hold title to relatively small tracts of forest, often on less than 10 acres of land.

According to The State of Chesapeake Forests, the number of small forest tracts jumped by 25 percent in the last decade.

"The trend is the same everywhere," said Rob Farrell of the Virginia Department of Forestry. "More people on the same amount of land, divided into ever smaller pieces."

Sixty-three percent of Virginia's private forest owners and 80 percent of Maryland's private forest owners hold tracts of less than 10 acres. Pennsylvania averages 16 acres per tract-but together they add up to 12.5 million acres, or about 75 percent of the commonwealth's total forestland.

The changing ownership pattern, known among foresters as parcelization, is a challenge for state forest agencies and a concern for the health of Chesapeake Bay.

These new forest owners value their land for recreation, wildlife and scenery, but most have little understanding of the basic stewardship practices that create and maintain a healthy forest.

"People buying forestland today aren't farmers or forest managers," Farrell said. "They are general residential owners, people who want a piece of the country."

They also have little to no awareness of the role their land plays in protecting the Bay.

Acre for acre, forests are considered the best land use for protecting water quality. Trees absorb large amounts of nitrogen that would otherwise add to pollution problems in the Bay and its rivers. They reduce the threat of flooding by capturing rainwater and stormwater runoff. They also prevent soil from washing into streams and keep water temperatures at a healthy level for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Despite the benefits, forests are being lost in the Bay watershed at an estimated rate of 100 acres per day. When forestland is parcelized, the forest still exists. But that may be the extent of the good news. Cutting the land into smaller pieces triggers problems that endanger the health of the forest and its long-term survival.

The best timber is often cleared from the land before smaller tracts hit the market, giving the new landowner less economic incentive to retain the forest.

Large numbers of forest owners also lead to uneven forest quality. The amount of attention they give their land varies, and so do the activities that take place on it-whether they are primary residences or vacation homes, a place for hunting and fishing, watching wildlife, or harvesting timber.

Frequent turnover makes it difficult to nurture a long-term vision.

Another problem with parcelization is that one owner's decision to clear or develop their land often influences others. The domino effect can sever a contiguous forest with strips of development, making it less valuable to wildlife and impacting the overall health of the larger forest.

All of these issues make forest management plans important. A management plan, sometimes called a stewardship or conservation plan, outlines the owner's goals for the land and the activities that support them.

Small-acreage forest owners are unlikely to have a management plan. Most small-acreage owners associate forest management with harvesting timber. Because few are in the timber business, a management plan seems unnecessary. Others believe the best possible "plan" is to simply leave the forest alone.

But Dan Rider of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service said that management plans are for everyone.

"People equate the term 'forest management' with chain saws and logging," Rider said. "But it's also about health checkups, gypsy moths and property line encroachments, and whether or not the desirable species are regenerating."

Management plans also keep owners actively involved with their land. This makes them less likely to accept a developer's check or unknowingly harvest timber using practices that cause lasting damage to the forest.

Forest owners who are willing to do some research can come up with many elements of a management plan themselves. "The Woods in Your Backyard" is a self-guided manual that walks users through the process. Released in 2007 as a joint project by the Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia cooperative extensions, the manual is already helping landowners move from questions to well-defined plans.

"We're already seeing good impacts," said Adam Downing of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. "People are making plans and connecting with natural resource professionals, and even converting some land back to natural areas."

While making a management plan, many forest owners find that the scenic beauty of their woods conceals damage from past use. Overly aggressive timber harvest may have robbed the woods of important species and left broken or crooked growth in its wake. Vines or other invasive species might be competing with native plants in the understory.

Forest owners might respond by increasing the variety of trees and plants to attract more wildlife or improve resistance to pests and disease.

They could also remove invasive species or open the canopy to help new trees emerge.

Or, they might maximize the forest's contributions to clean water and air. A forest that includes young, vigorously growing trees, for example, is especially effective at absorbing nutrients in stormwater runoff and carbon emissions that create global warming. Thinning can actually help some aspects of the ecosystem to function better and provide revenue to its owner.

But spreading the gospel of forest management to millions of suburban and absentee landowners isn't easy. Supporting them with professional services is even harder, because both private foresters and budget-strapped forest agencies find it more cost-efficient to work with fewer, large tracts of land than multiple small ones.

For example, the Maryland Forest Service traditionally had one forester at work in each county. Now, budget constraints have left some foresters responsible for two or three counties and thousands of additional potential customers.

"If you have less than 10 acres, we'll still work with you, but you go on a list," Rider said. "Being in a high priority watershed helps."

Even American Tree Farm, a popular national program, focuses on forests of at least 10 acres.

Small-acreage owners who want to pay private foresters can have a hard time hiring one-even when they offer timber. Private foresters make more money working with larger forests. And on smaller tracts, developers have often cleared the best timber before selling the land as a home site, leaving only poor quality lumber that can't attract a buyer.

As a result, the largest sector of forest owners continually falls through the cracks.

"A lot of small acreage owners aren't getting any help at all or don't know what's out there," said Craig Highfield of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Highfield coordinates Forestry for the Bay, a new regional program aimed at filling the outreach and service gap for small-acreage forest owners. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the program kicked off this spring at a Maryland press conference. Other events are in the works for Pennsylvania and Virginia.

By signing up at the Forestry for the Bay website, landowners will have access to information about technical and financial assistance for managing forestland, as well as an on-line mapping tool and guidance on starting a management plan.

"Forestry for the Bay is a free, one-stop shop to help people maintain and improve their forests," Highfield said.

Lucy Wright, who owns 25 acres of forest in Baltimore County, MD, is enthusiastic about the new effort.

"No one who owns land doesn't love it," Wright said. "But there's a disconnect. They don't know what to do or who to go to. Forestry for the Bay can really help fill that gap."

Success, Wright said, depends on recruiting landowners who already manage their forests to spread the word among friends and neighbors. "We need to invite them into the process and get them excited. I tell them, 'What would you do in your flower bed or vegetable garden? You don't let those go wild. Don't let your forest go wild either.'"

The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry is investigating ways to create "neighborhoods" of private forest owners, who could practice good forestry on their combined block of forest. The bureau has also embarked on a project with Penn State University to understand the dynamics of parcelization and possibly alter the trend.

"We're talking with landowners and families face to face, in lots of different counties, to see if they are concerned about forests and are taking any steps to keep the forests intact," said Gene Odato, who heads the bureau's rural and community forestry section. You can make the call. "We'd like them to know that there are alternatives to just giving every kid in the family 10 acres. They can form a partnership so that the forest can be managed as a whole."

Tax structures need a closer look too. Forest owners can qualify for tax breaks through Pennsylvania's Clean and Green program, but only if they have a minimum of 10 acres. People subdividing land understand this. "So they tend to cut up the land into lots just that size, which makes parcelization worse," Odato said.

Wright said that all of this must be complemented by helping landowners talk to other landowners. "I see the need and how easily it can be met," Wright said. "It's really not that hard, but it's not happening yet."

Visit Forestry for the Bay online at www.forestryforthebay.org.

"The Woods in Your Backyard" is available for $18 at www.nraes.org or by calling 607-255-7654.

Forestry For The Bay

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, in a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Chesapeake Bay Program, has launched Forestry for the Bay, a web-based program promoting the importance of sustainable management practices to owners of forests ranging from backyard woodlots to 25 acres or more.

The program guides landowners through a checklist of practices aligned with forest stewardship principles and provides small- and medium-size forest landowners with information on financial incentives and technical assistance for implementing sustainable forestry practices.

Membership in the voluntary program is free. For details, visit www.forestryforthebay.org.