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Profile of the children of Wisconsin's private woodland owners
Learning the concerns of forest families | Plan to keep the land
Important factors to keep forestlands in the family
Share what you value most about the forest | Shaking the branches of knowledge
Make a plan and talk it through | A family trust for a forest future
Help with your wooded acres
The big picture most people have of Wisconsin's 16 million wooded acres is that the forests consist mainly of large tracts of public lands and commercial timber. In fact, almost 60 percent of our forested acres are smaller parcels owned by individuals and families. And like the trees themselves, those owners are slowly aging. More than half of those private acres are owned by people 55 years and older. Their "kids" are often middle-aged with grown children of their own. These offspring are taking root far from their childhood homes and far from the forested acres their families own, often in another state altogether. As concerned as children may be about their parents' quality of life and end-of-life issues, the offspring may not want or have the skills to manage forested land they will be inheriting, even when they say they want to keep the land in family ownership.
A new challenge facing the state and the nation is understanding the needs of this next generation of forest stewards, says Forestry Division Administrator Paul DeLong. "Will these children of current landowners maintain the same commitment to the land and can we provide them with the tools to manage these forests? Both the attitudes and actions of this next generation of forest owners are vitally important to our state's economy, to the quality of life we enjoy and to a healthy environment," DeLong says.
The graying of America has focused attention on being financially solvent to cover health care costs, but there are other issues. One area that is less studied is property ownership. Specifically, what happens to parcels of land that have a life of their own that continues when current owners die? According to research by the Pinchot Institute that specializes in forestry conservation issues, the biggest transfer of private forest lands between generations will occur within the next two decades.
Unlike the transfer of most belongings, land is a living asset whose management requires more than cursory attention and a future commitment of time and effort. Transferring land from one generation to another is more complicated than giving a painting, securities or a bank account to a relative. Forestland and farmland in particular require work to sustain their value and often carry ongoing legal requirements when the property has been enrolled in government incentive programs like the Managed Forest Law or the Conservation Reserve Program. Those inheriting such lands need to be prepared to handle those responsibilities.
Similar pressures have already drawn attention and concern among conservationists and land managers as multinational companies sell off their commercial forest properties. According to DNR figures, 94 percent of the 1.1 million forested acres owned by corporations doing business in Wisconsin has changed hands in the last seven years, sometimes more than once. Does this trend open the door to divide forestland into smaller and smaller lots for housing? Will the realities of caring for the forest motivate new owners to sell to developers who see bigger and quicker profits in housing than in working woodlands? Will those forests disappear just as demand grows for woody biomass as a fuel source and the role of healthy trees in offsetting society's carbon footprint are finally recognized?
The benefits from Wisconsin's forests are not just enjoyed by the owner. Clean air and water, plant and animal habitat, outdoor recreation, beauty, and the economic benefits of a strong forest products industry benefit everyone.
So what incentives might entice future woodland owners to sustain these forests? To find out their needs, researchers started talking with them. Pinchot Institute researcher Catherine Mater partnered with the Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry program of the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry programs in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to interview the children of families who own forested acres. Over several years of conversation, Mater noticed a disconnect between comments from older property owners and their children. She started formal survey work to discern if demographics like the gender and age of the respondents shed clues about kinds of concerns this next generation of woodland owners will need answered. The interview teams also asked respondents:
Mater also examined whether responses varied based on the size of the family forest, whether the land had been purchased by the parents or had been in the family for generations, whether the kids had been raised on the family woodlot, and whether the family was actively involved with forest management self-help groups or professionals.
Michael Framberger is one of those "kids" who put a human face on the statistical portrait Mater's interviews painted. Framberger, 57, lives in California. He describes himself as a successful professional, married for 34 years and father of a 26-year-old daughter. His parents, in their 80s, live on 160 acres of forested land in the Town of Mount Morris near Wautoma. He was 10 years old when his father bought the land. The previous owner's widow sold the property to pay back taxes. There is joy and affection in his voice when Framberger talks about his memories of hunting and working the family parcel.
"We lived in Oshkosh during the week, but spent weekends on the property," Framberger said. "I grew up in those woods. My brother and I did a lot of work there that helped put him through grad school."
Nearly three decades ago, "I considered coming back to Wisconsin and taking over the farm," Framberger said. "It was at a time when I had hand-planted hundreds of what was considered a new kind of tree in the area, Fraser firs. The trees are too big now and really need to be replanted. For 15 years, my dad shipped one of the trees I had planted to California every December. I was able to tell friends a tree I had planted was our Christmas tree."
As the son of German immigrants, Framberger's father could see value in land others considered worthless. Through years of careful management and participation in the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program, the property he and his siblings now co-own has increased in financial and emotional value.
"I'm very proud of our participation in the MFL program," Framberger said. "It means my siblings and I are not going to be burdened by taxes for the land my parents are living on. Dad had foresight. If we were looking at a significant tax bill each year, that would make it much more difficult to hang on to the property."
Framberger knows things are going to change in the near future. His father has health issues and the "kids" all live out of state. "We all know the distance will be more of a challenge," he said.
Framberger said inquiries to sell the land come in on a fairly regular basis. He is grateful there is not a lot of development pressure in the area. The property is also "pretty well-protected. Dad and the neighbors have done a good job. They have an informal agreement that if one of them wants to sell their parcels, they'll contact each other before putting any land up for sale."
The Framberger family remains committed to the forested property they have lived on and enjoyed for half a century.
"I can't guarantee the land wouldn't be sold, and I really can't speak for my siblings. Other than a medical emergency, I know I wouldn't want to sell the property. We have all talked about this, and other members of the family, including grandchildren, have asked for first right of refusal."
What needs to be done to help families hold on to forested land?
"Give us an incentive, Framberger said. "We sell pulpwood, but maybe [offer] carbon credits for biofuel or come up with different products that generate enough revenue. If land becomes a financial burden, it will be tough for people to hang on to it.
"We need to do more than talk about carbon credits. We need to share an environmental consciousness, a sense of responsibility to the land. I would love to make sure that kind of information is communicated to landowners and their kids. And if we could generate some income – or at least generate some social or environmental good – so much the better."
An important family event will take place this year.
"All of the kids, including all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are coming home to Wisconsin," Framberger said. "It will be the first time everyone has managed to get back at the same time." He's hoping the reunion will be a gift to his parents, a celebration of their life, and yet another opportunity to take a walk in the family forest.
Some of that same passion is shared by Julie Erbe, a busy professional in her 50s, born in Milwaukee and now living about 50 miles south of Chicago. Erbe's father, 77, and her mother, 72, live in southern Wisconsin. Along with a 72-year-old uncle in Florida, they inherited about 40 acres of forested property in Door County from Erbe's grandfather in the 1940s. The land boasts views of Lake Michigan adjoining conservancy land. The parcel is held in a family trust that includes Julie, her three siblings, her parents and her uncle's family.
Erbe said she and her relatives all have wonderful memories of the Door County property while they were growing up. Her parents coordinate and schedule when various family relatives book the cottage. Julie enjoys walking in the woods, picking wild strawberries, seeing the native flowers.
The difficult conversation about what should be done with the family property happened when Erbe's mother began having health problems.
"About 10 years ago, Dad said he was concerned that the kids didn't want to take on ownership of the Door County property," Erbe said. "We came to him and said, 'don't think we don't want the cottage.'"
Erbe said her parents "didn't want to burden the kids (with property concerns) while we were getting started on our careers. Now that we're all established, keeping ownership of the land doesn't look like such a burden. There's not much to do – pay taxes and do basic maintenance every few years."
Erbe said there have been no disagreements among any of the property's owners. One reason for that may be the agreement her father and uncle have. If one wants to sell, other family members have a chance to buy the land. Erbe said she believes that ownership arrangement will keep the land in family hands. But there is always a possibility that could change. She acknowledges it's difficult to take a hands-on approach when all but one set of owners live out of state. Then there are the notes left on the cottage porch from developers looking to buy land. Erbe said she believes environmental laws and zoning that limit the kinds of development will be a factor in keeping the property as it is right now. And if there is one goal Erbe has for the property, it's to keep development away.
"Keep it undeveloped," she says enthusiastically. "The biggest concern for folks in Door County is that everything that drew people up there in the first place – the clean water and the woods and the animals – will eventually disappear, including the forests."
Julie Hess, 28, and her sister, 24, both live only two hours away from the 80 acres of forested land in Pittsville, where their parents recently retired. Though her parents are relatively young – in their early 60s – the family sat down and talked about what will happen to their land. They had a good model. The recent death of another family member caused relatively little upheaval because the family had discussed how such a land transfer would be handled ahead of time. Hess admits it's a little difficult to think about passing on land when she and her sister are just starting their professional lives, but it's important.
Her father has involved both daughters in managing their forest. They share their values and collectively reviewed the management plan. She learned what is involved in holding a timber sale and has some idea of the property's financial underpinnings. The land isn't mortgaged and the property taxes aren't particularly burdensome since the land isn't "super high-priced real estate." Development pressure seems light "since it's kind of in the middle of no place." Both Hess and her sister want to keep the land in the family. At 28, she also realizes she is young and that conditions could change. She is grateful she has had a chance to work side-by-side with her father and learned from his approach to forest management.
"Likely by the time my sister and I retire, the property will be a better financial investment," Hess said. "[Right now,] if there were a bankruptcy or other family emergency, or if I had to pay the taxes myself, there could be a problem" keeping the land. Julie knows her sister is more interested in the house than she is, but she doesn't think there will be any arguments when the time comes for them to assume ownership responsibilities.
The bulk of Gary Vander Wyst's life has been lived in forests – in Massachusetts, Colorado, Texas and Morocco. When he came home to Wisconsin, he worked for private nurseries and as a county forester before joining the Department of Natural Resources. He currently works as a forester in Park Falls, but his love for property his father owns in northern Wisconsin predated his choice of a vocation.
Vander Wyst describes an upbringing that included hunting, cutting firewood and planting hundreds of seedlings alongside his dad on 80 acres of forested property in Florence County. Vander Wyst said he, his two brothers and two sisters have a strong tie to the land their 83-year-old father bought in the early 1960s. His dad started the discussion of what to do with the land once he passes on.
"One day, Dad came to the kids and asked, 'What do you think we should do with the property?'" Vander Wyst said. "We all said, 'It's yours – do what you wish!' Dad's response was, 'What if I leave it to you kids?'"
A trust was set up, and Vander Wyst and his siblings are the de facto owners of the land, though Vander Wyst makes it clear that his father is still the one "calling the shots." Although his sisters aren't as actively involved with the property as his brothers, Vander Wyst said all are comfortable with the joint ownership arrangement. "Dad says if any of us kids fight about the property, they're out of the will. And he's not kidding!"
Vander Wyst said he's sure the land will stay in the family and that ownership will eventually shift to the grandchildren, all of whom have fond memories of the Florence County property.
"Our only problem now is making sure Dad doesn't get the chainsaw going to cut his firewood for 2015," Vander Wyst says with a laugh.
As someone who refers to himself as his father's "on-call forester," Vander Wyst knows what can happen when forested land is not properly managed. And he knows the importance of involving a professional forester in forming a management plan for the woodlands. In the absence of such plans, he has seen what fragmentation can do to forested areas. And he knows it wouldn't take long for an 80-acre parcel to be divided up into three- and five-acre lots to accommodate cabins.
"I have no simple answers for how tonsure the future of privately owned forestland," Vander Wyst says. He believes it includes educating current and future owners. And it helps to have the kind of affection and respect his family has for each other.
Mater is continuing her research. She acknowledges it has importance beyond Wisconsin and the U.S.; Germany, France, and Ireland are also grappling with the same kinds of forest ownership issues.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that societies that have been celebrating Earth Day for most of their lives and who say they are committed to conservation and stewardship will ensure that forests remain forests. Mater's research suggests other factors and personal circumstances – taxes, family finances, proximity to the land, sibling rivalries – also play a role. Parents and children need to talk about the land now. And the only way to know with any level of certainty what the future of forests and forestry will be like is to talk it over with your kids.
Virginia Mayo Black writes for DNR's Division of Forestry in Madison.