OSU wins American Forest Foundation grant on Family Forests Transfers

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The American Forest Foundation this week announced a three-year, $510,000 grant to Oregon State University to help address an issue of growing concern to many of America’s 10 million family forest owners: What happens to the forest under the next owners?

One-third of today’s family forest owners are 65 years or older, and one of every five acres is owned by people who plan to sell or transfer some or all of their forest land within the next five years. The American Forest Foundation grant will allow OSU’s Austin Family Business Program to extend its “Ties to the Land” project for intergenerational planning to a nationwide audience after recently completing successful in-state pilot tests.

“‘Ties to the Land’ comes at a critical time of intense economic pressures on family forest owners,” said Bob Simpson, senior vice president for the American Forest Foundation. “Many of them are struggling to balance their love for the land with high property tax rates, highly depressed timber prices, and absentee heirs.”

Without good family planning for transfer of the forestland, Simpson warned that what often happens is the easiest thing – the land is sold for development.

“With more than 1.5 million acres of forests lost to development each year, we have no time to lose in educating the next generation of forest owners,” he said.

Aging landowners can easily be overwhelmed by family disputes and legal complexities of such transfers, according to Brad Withrow-Robinson, an Extension forester with the OSU College of Forestry. A typical situation is when one sibling wants to hold on to the property and other siblings are pressing to sell, he pointed out.

“Only 30 percent of family forest landowners have any kind of management plan, let alone a succession plan,” Withrow-Robinson said. “These issues are simply not being addressed with the urgency they deserve.”

To meet this need, OSU and its partners developed “family friendly” materials that are used to bring families together in workshops that walk them through their options and decisions. The goal is to create a safe forum for framing emotionally charged issues between family members with different priorities or different degrees of connection to the land.

“Succession planning is not easy because it involves confronting emotional and complex issues such as death and taxes,” said Robin Klemm, director of OSU’s Austin Family Business Program. “It requires, at a minimum, the help of professionals in the legal and financial fields.”

The award-winning Ties to the Land curriculum helps families address both family and business goals needed for effective succession planning. “Through the worksheets, the readers start their own planning,” said Klemm.

Building on a “train the trainer” model, Ties to the Land is now getting traction nationwide. The university is now doing a multi-state launch of its forest planning materials, tapping into 100 family business programs in many other states. It’s also being made available to libraries nationwide.

“As a nonprofit representing 90,000 forest owners, I can tell you we really need this program,” said Simpson, of the American Forest Foundation. “People are asking for it, so we made it a priority to get it to them.”

“The reality these days is that if forest land does not stay in the family, it often doesn’t end up as forest at all,” said OSU Extension forester Chal Landgren. “Many of these lands are on the fringes of cities and towns and get developed.”

The $500,000 grant from the American Forest Foundation was announced at a March 12 event at OSU where several speakers, including Klemm, spoke to the urgency of this work.

“Every day there are more family forest owners realizing the need to plan for the transition of their land,” she said. “Thanks to the support of AFF, we are thrilled to be able to now provide these materials to help families beyond Oregon.”

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