OSI Research The Changing Forest Landscape

Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

The Private Forest Planning Collaborative

 New Hampshire Forest photo by Monkmans

An initiative to create opportunities for landowners to retain their land in forest management. 


Project Summary

The Private Forestland Planning Collaborative will create maps and a report that examines the public benefits of protecting large tracts of private forestland in the eastern United States. The objective data will be made available to NGOs and industry leaders to advocate to policymakers for expanded easement funding, new tax incentives and markets for working forestland.

The study is designed to identify the importance of large ownerships in holding together the mosaic of privately owned forests, creating and retaining jobs, and protecting drinking water sources and wildlife habitat. To conduct the study, OSI is seeking to collaborate directly with 30 of the largest landowners on the East Coast with over 200,000 acres each and an average holding of 1.2 million acres.

Maps will identify opportunities and places to work with landowners to protect high-priority forestland at the greatest risk of conversion to incompatible uses. The mapping methodology is structured to first identify forestlands that provide high economic, water and biodiversity values and then overlay the potential for these lands being converted to non-forest uses. American Forest Management, a private consulting firm, has been hired to develop the maps and assist with landowner outreach and an expert Advisory Committee [link to list] will inform the study methods and approach.

An accompanying report will describe the interests and constraints facing the three types of landowners that typically hold large forest ownerships—Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs), Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and families/corporations. The report will describe the pattern of potential land sales.

Landowners collaborating in the study will have the opportunity to review and comment on the study before it is publically released.



Over the last 20 years a remarkable transformation has taken place across the nation’s forests. In that time, an estimated 60 million acres of forestland changed hands from vertically integrated timber product companies—suppliers of traditional timber products like housing panels, fencing and dimensional lumber—to a new wave of financial investors, many of them classified as Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).

Today, many forestland owners face increasing economic hardships due to reduced commodity prices and declining real estate values. While no one knows whether timberland prices will rise or fall over the next decade, it has become increasingly likely that without alternative markets landowners maybe forced to heavily cut forests, convert land out of forest use, or fragment forestland into sizes no longer practical for forest management.

And TIMOs and REITs aren’t the only landowners that may be feeling the pressures of the economic downturn. Family ownerships that have been passed down from generation to generation are feeling the pinch between declining timber markets and land taxes that have remained the same or even increased.

As well, a recent study shows that despite fluctuations in the economy and development, East Coast forests since 1970 have been in general decline, as 4.1 percent of the forested base or more than 9 million acres of forestland has been lost during that time to development.

The Open Space Institute, with support from the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities and other foundations, is reaching out to 30 different landowners to help identify the extent and general location of large, private forest ownerships and opportunities for win-win partnerships in order to prepare for large-scale forest sales over the next 10 years.

Building on an initial case study in Maine and New Hampshire, OSI intends to provide objective data to inform efforts aimed at retaining large private forestlands as a critical part of the economy and ecology east of the grasslands.


Five Goals For the Study

The study has six explicit goals:

  • For the first time, develop an accurate map of the location of the largest forest ownerships in the east (specific ownerships will not be identified)
  • Quantify the economic, water and ecological values that could be lost if forestland is converted out of active forest use
  • Identify forestlands under high, medium and low conversion pressure
  • Provide independent, objective information that can be used by industry and NGOs to advocate for strategies to retain large working forest ownerships
  • Raise the awareness of policymakers about potential future land sales and forest loss;
  • Inform the creation of new incentives for long-term management, declined fragmentation and improved management for water, wildlife and climate change mitigation.

The first phase of work will be to develop a series of maps that illustrates currently held large private ownerships and examines the existing public values provided by these lands, such as clean air and clean water, and the potential for losing these values through forestland conversion if other opportunities aren’t available to landowners.

The second phase of work will engage partner NGOs and public officials at the state and federal level in making the case for easement funding and new markets for forestland. We hope to introduce this data into new and established efforts to increase funding for maintaining forestland in forest use.


Study Methods

The study will aggregate data from a variety of trusted sources to identify the areas with strong economic, water quality and biodiversity resources. We will further examine forestlands with high, medium and low conversion pressure to understand the risks these resource areas face. Explicit ”focus areas” will not be identified; instead, the final maps will identify the role of large private forestlands in protecting public values and maintaining the integrity of the overall landscape.

Areas with strong forest economies will be identified by the number of milling facilities, the price for pine “stumpage” or standing timber, annual wood growth and the number of jobs in the forest sector.

The ability of forests to protect water quality will be evaluated based on the amount of intact forestland in the watershed. Watershed with high development and agriculture will be scored lower due to the declining water quality associated with these land uses.

Biodiversity will be evaluated by the number of species at risk of extinction according to NatureServe. Watersheds with greater than 16 at-risk species will be considered to have high biodiversity values.

The location of large forestland ownerships will be mapped over each of the natural resource values and shaded according to the relative conversion pressure. Conversion pressure will be determined based on 2030 housing projections.


Accessing Expertise

OSI has retained American Forest Management, a highly respected forestry consulting and appraisal organization with experience in over 900 forestland transactions and offices in 16 states, to work with OSI to manage the data collection, mapping and interviews.

Working with AFM, OSI will confirm full landowner consent prior to making any data public. We will seek to expand the coverage of data that can be made public to 90 percent of TIMO and REIT ownerships by the close of the project.

In addition, OSI has engaged an expert advisory committee made up of investors, former forestry executives, policy makers, forest industry professionals and others involved in forest management in the east, to assure that the work is relevant, timely, and reaches the appropriate audiences.


Prior Research

This initiative is an outgrowth of OSI’s work over the past eight years in the eastern U.S., where we have worked with private landowners and conservation groups to fund working forest easements across more than 1.7 million acres, and to conduct targeted research on innovative strategies to conserve forestland. Most recently OSI published a case study, Forestland for Sale, on forestland ownership in the 600,000-acre Mahoosuc Region on the border of Maine and New Hampshire. The study found that the average corporate forest ownership has been fragmented over the last 25 years from an average ownership of 100,000 acres to a current average of 13,000 acres.



Special Thanks

The initiative is supported by the US Endowment for Forests and Communities, the Merck Family Fund, the Overhills Foundation, the Betterment Fund, the Davis Conservation Foundation and individual donors.



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