“A society grows great when old men (and women) plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
I ran across this Greek proverb a while back.
Although it has broader societal implications for sure, as a tree enthusiast, I can’t help narrowly interpreting it for the work we in the conservation community engage in on private family-owned forestlands. We invest tremendous amounts of time, energy and resources into our endeavors there and, undoubtedly, benefit from the clean air and water, wildlife refuge, carbon sequestration and all the other things that these private lands provide.
Restoring and conserving our private resource lands remains a major goal in improving the Chesapeake.
One of the basic objectives of the Alliance’s Forests for the Bay is to help the region’s landowners realize the benefits and gratification they can receive from their woods and through its management — from the array of potential recreational opportunities or periodic income from harvests to the mere enjoyment of privacy or the aesthetics of their land.
During the plethora of workshops and events we offer throughout the Chesapeake region, we encounter landowners with a wide range of conservation goals, experiences and interests — from those new to land ownership and resources management to those who have owned and stewarded their land for decades. What they all seem to have in common is their appreciation for their wooded resource and a desire to improve and sustain it into the future.
Often, conservation work on private lands focuses on helping landowners reach their own goals through stalwart natural resource programs, innovative funding opportunities and a collaboration of technical assistance.
Many landowners realize that patience and dedication is needed to attain these goals and that the results of their management actions will often not be evident for years or generations to come.
During that critical time when land is transferred to a new generation of owners, however, an entire lifetime of stewardship can be decimated in an instant.
Conservation easements have been widely used to protect resource lands and overcome the challenges of associated with land transfer. Limited funding for easements, though, narrows the priorities and also reduces land eligibility. Easements are often misunderstood by landowners, or they are just not a good fit for their personal goals. Forever is a long time. The conservation easement remains a valuable tool for landowners, but it is one of many that is needed in the toolbox.
We have entered an era of the largest intergenerational transfer of forestland ownership in this country’s history. A large wave of the woodland owner base will be transferring vast amounts of land in the next two decades. For instance, according to the US Forest Service’s National Woodland Owners Survey, 44 percent of Virginia woodland owners with 25 acres or more are at or beyond retirement age. The average age of a woodland owner in Pennsylvania is 57.
All too often, decisions regarding the future of family lands as they transition to new generations are derived solely on the immediate economic value of the land and assurance of equality amongst heirs. Two big threats to family forests that are often not considered seem to be the lack of communication followed by a whole lot of assumption.
Legacy planning can be an essential tool for landowners to pre-empt the onslaught of these threats and prepare for the eventual transfer of the family woodlands to the next generation. Legacy planning is not simply estate planning, which, with the expertise of an estate planning attorney, is used to organize the distribution of assets and wealth (estate) to heirs.
Legacy planning is a process that initiates dialogue between generations about keeping family lands and conservation goals intact while also working to minimize the financial, legal and personal challenges and the false assumptions that can be associated with estate transfer, inheritance and land management. Legacy planning incorporates the expertise of professional foresters and other natural resource and conservation professionals as well as an estate planning attorneys and tax professionals familiar with working on rural lands.
Legacy planning is gaining traction in the Chesapeake region as a valuable strategy to slow the fragmentation of our invaluable private forestland.
Outreach to landowners has already been occurring in the Bay watershed for several years. Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Department of Forestry offer their “Focusing on Land Transfer to Generation — NEXT” legacy-planning course throughout the state. Penn State Extension’s Center for Private Forests also offers legacy-planning workshops while also maintaining a wealth of resources on their website, extension.psu.edu/legacy.
With funding from the U.S. Forest Service and support for the Maryland Forest Service, we developed and have been offering our “Maryland Family Forest Legacy Planning” course to woodland and agricultural landowners throughout Maryland. Our three-hour course takes landowners through the process of legacy planning, including natural resource management, estate planning, easements, the collage of conservation programs and other resource opportunities in Maryland.
For details about our course and resources, visit www.forestsforthebay.org/legacy