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Jan Lee headshot

America's Small Landowners: One Forest at a Time

By Jan Lee

Small landowners are the unsung heroes of the U.S. forest industry. We often think of public forests as the key source of the U.S. wood supply, but in fact, that resource only amounts to about a quarter of the total acreage that is harvested for wood products in the U.S. The rest comprises stock supplied by landowners that have dedicated their acreages to maintaining U.S. forest growth and supply.

There have been a variety of studies of the U.S. forest system in recent years to determine how sustainable these two forest systems really are. A 2010 report published by the National Forest Service for example, yielded some surprising facts:

  • More than 75 percent of the private forests is made up of small landowners who own less than 5,000 acres of forest, most of which are spread across the Southeast U.S. in small parcels.

  • Some 40 percent of those small holdings are actually managed as farms, many with an eye on sustainable forest management;

  • And despite the abundance of small commercial land holdings, "the means and ability of owners to practice good forestry vary widely."

In recent decades there has been an effort to coalesce that sustainable movement, with tree farm operators, mills, distributors product manufacturers and environmental organizations coming together to build networks that will ensure healthy forest management through certification and cooperative measures.

In the forests of Southeast Arkansas, where small landowners have invested in the timber industry for generations, that partnership has become invaluable. It has for the paper and wood product manufacturers as well, who look to small landowners to supply good-quality wood and want to know that those tree farms will be there in decades to come.

And so do the distributors, who know that the environmental health of dozens of small tree farms in a given area is inextricably linked to the viability of the manufacturing company they get their paper and wood from.

One company that has come to appreciate that partnership is Domtar, best known for its paper, pulp and softwood products in the temperate region of Ashdown, Ark, where pockets of small landowners make their living from the wood industry.

Donna Janssen is one of those landowners. Her family property comprises 11 separate parcels spread across the region. She manages the WL Kirby Estate Partnership, named after her grandfather, a businessman who had bought tracks of land as a pastime investment and gradually developed them into a timber business. After he died, his wife took over the business, later passing it on to her daughter, who deeded it to Janssen and her family after she died.

Today, that women-run business amounts to just over 700 sprawling acres. "That is considered small," she added.

The "end game" of the farm, as Janssen puts it, is the acres of trees she grows and harvests on set intervals for whole logs. The farm also maintains revenue from the thinning of wood that is sold to the mill for pulp products like paper and pressed wood. But ultimately, she said, the large, well-cultivated and healthy stand of trees demonstrates WL Kirby Estate Partnership's sustainable forestry methods.

Janssen is a quintessential example of the American small landowner today: fiercely focused on sustainability, committed to the environment and acutely aware that sustainability isn't simply a set of practices one carries out  but a way of life that is validated by the business relationships she maintains. Domtar's own commitment to sustainability is seen not just in its effort to create a certification program, she said, but its  effort to encourage landowners to take part.

"Domtar facilitates a group certification process," that helps local farmers network and increase forest resiliency, Janssen explains. The company encouraged her to become certified after it had purchased the mill. She said Domtar's approach toward local sustainable certification is part of what makes the concept work.

"[Certification] can be a pretty daunting process," she said that would be "much more laborious. Until Domtar started talking certification, it wasn't even on my radar."

Creating that network of landowners in the Ashdown area took patient determination, said Paige Goff, Domtar's vice president of sustainability, "one dinner after another" as landowners, mill representatives and environmental advocates discussed the benefits and the means for creating an organization of certified tree farms. For many of the landowners, Goff said, sustainable management was already an assumed way of life.

Yet Domtar also realized that making decisions about their land was an intensely personal issue.

"They don't want anybody telling them how to manage it," Goff said, adding that for some, "any intrusiveness was scary to them."

Today, that coalition of tree farms is known as the Four State Timberland Owners Association. It comprises almost a million acres of timberland whose products are certified through the Forest Stewardship Council's Chain of Custody program. Janssen said it's a program that "aligns with our ethics" and helps reinforce the timberland owners' message to the public that environmental stewardship does matter. "There is an intrinsic reward in knowing that what we are doing is helping maintain the environment," Janssen said.

While the timberland owners don't get any financial incentive from certifying, she said there are educational and operational benefits from doing so.

The company assists with finding and arranging for contractors in each of the stages of timber management, from erosion control to managing evasive species, ensuring that they are trained to work in chain of custody-certified forests.

"It's a huge benefit for me as a landowner," Janssen said.

It also provides support for those special "boots on the ground" challenges that tree farm owners often face. Janssen said a classic example was couple of years ago when the area sustained an intense cold snap. Sixty percent of the trees in two different tracks were damaged.

"It was devastating," said Janssen. "That's your crop."

She said she spoke to several contractors in an effort to get an idea of what she should do. Then she called Domtar.

"The advice from Domtar was to cut down the trees and make improvements," Janssen said, explaining that the trees had been planted 18 years earlier, when they weren't certified, using planting methods that were less sustainable than those they employ today.

"It was a hard decision," Janssen said, softened only by the fact that Domtar helped the farm reclaim some of the profits by using them as pulp wood.

For Domtar, Goff said, the effort to establish sustainable resources doesn't stop at the tree farm, or its mill. The buyers who put their labels on the grocery store shelf, like P&G, help "close the loop" by demonstrating that they are willing to endorse sustainable, certified processes and promote them on their packaging.

She added however, that landowners aren't required to sell to the mill and aren't penalized if they decide to not continue on. She said the company has learned some valuable lessons over the years that they try to ensure are a regular part of their relationship with landowners. Closing the loop with suppliers is critical, but so is meaning what you say, and being willing to prove it "by creating a community where landowners can talk to landowners," Goff said.

Making the process easy so that landowners stay engaged and don't feel overwhelmed is important as well.

"We are there to help them start off a plan," said Goff, that will help build not only healthy forests but sound business partnerships in the sustainable timber industry.


Flickr images: oemar; Mike Norton

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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