Pennsylvania’s private woodlands are a lasting legacy of Penn’s Woods. Seventy percent of the state’s forestland is held by individuals, families, hunting clubs, and other private groups. Many of the trees we see around us and enjoy are there because someone has a personal affinity for the land, its trees, and a commitment to caring for them.
A recent study by the Penn State School of Forest Resources showed that many of the state’s private landowners are thinking about the future of their forestland. 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; however, we see few taking meaningful actions to plan accordingly. In the 2010 Exploring the Private Forestlands of Pennsylvania study, 53% of the current owners said they intend to leave their land to more than one heir. Under this scenario, land that that was cared for to meet one or two person’s values, suddenly becomes subject to many more voices making decisions, and these voices don’t often sing the same song.
With the holidays approaching and families and friends gathering, perhaps now is the time for you to take a walk in the woods with your heirs. Talk about your land and what’s important to you. Studies show that heirs want to maintain the legacy of previous generations, but often they don’t feel included in the current decision-making and lack preparation for becoming the next forestland owner.
As a current forest landowner, talking with your heirs about what’s important to you about your land is both challenging and rewarding. Start with what you love. Tell your family why your land is important to you. Relate a funny or moving story. And 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. And maybe planning for its future becomes a more shared and engaged process for you, your family, and heirs than just wishing them luck when your will is read.
There are many resources available when one is ready to engage the estate or succession planning process. Forest Stewardship Bulletin #13: Estate Planning is one offered by Penn State Renewable Natural Resources Cooperative Extension. Visit http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uh105.pdf to download a copy or contact our office (information below). A simple internet search on forests and estate or succession planning will provide many other resources.
The most important step for the future of your woods is communication and having the gumption to start the conversation. 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.