Learning from the future: The family forest in 2058

Mike Reichenbach, Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension
John DuPlissis, Forestry Outreach Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

WLI participantsThe story about “The Family Forest in 2058” was developed by participants of the 2009 Woodland Leadership Institute[1].  The process of developing this story challenged the participants to think about their forest, family forest ownership and their views of forest ownership within the context of an unknown future.

While all participants did not agree on what the future would be like, they all agreed that the following story is plausible and that learning occurred during the process.   The questions underlying the development of this story include, “What is it that needs to be done today to put into place what we want in the future?  How do our viewpoints have to change before we can act?”  Of what importance is the family owned woodland to society? What role do family woodland owners have in influencing state and federal forest policies? How do private landowners and their woodlands contribute to and how are they affected by: the natural environment, society, political systems, economy, culture and technology?  The content below may present some answers.

The Family Forest in 2058


Minnesota authors:  James Bursey, Neal Chapman, Brian Huberty, Arlene Roehl; and Wisconsin authors:  Brian Gray, Diane Mroczenski, James Mroczenski, Chuck Pogorelcnik, Kevin Ramsey, Gary Rieniets, Edmund Shields, Tom Thompson Jr.

The year is 2058, private forest land is owned by a combination of families, Limited Liability companies and individuals. The families and individuals are independent, come from a variety of disciplines, are physically active and are on average 40 years old.  This was the result of successful efforts in the early part of the century to plan for the transfer of forestland from one generation to the next.  In many cases the transfer of land skipped one generation.  The land, the goals for its management and the personal sense of place from the original owners was passed from the grandparents to the grand children.

WLI 2009: Field site visitIn the Midwest, the climate is both warmer and dryer than in 2009.  Changes in forest composition from aspen cover types and northern boreal forests to a northern hardwood and pine dominated forest are evident.  In part, the transition in forest cover types has been accelerated by the impact of exotic species.  Exotics have been responsible for killing trees stressed by a changing climate.  In an effort aimed at keeping land in productive forest cover, landowners have been provided incentives to plant species more suited to the warmer and dryer climate.  This represents a significant shift from the philosophy of planting native species that was prevalent in 2009.  The change in climate has been a challenge and landowners are adapting.

Government programs for forestland owners have become more responsive to landowner and societal needs.  This was the result of the need to balance the demand for wood products, the need for carbon sequestration and the need for open spaces for a growing urban population.  The aesthetic, economic and health value of family forests is recognized as an asset by the local community, the state’s residents and the policy makers.  This is reflected in reduced property tax assessments for landowners who agree to maintain their land in forest.  The old Wisconsin Managed Forest Law was modified to reflect the need for open space and the requirements for scheduled management activities relaxed.

The emphasis on growing aspen in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota has shifted from growing pulp to a focus on growing high quality hardwoods, and conifers for lumber production.  Timber stand improvement of these stands provides a source of income.  The value of decorative wood products and hardwood lumber provides an economic incentive for forest management.  Conifer plantations provide a wide range of economically valuable products, including lumber, pulp and energy production.  Mixed hardwood forests are being planted.   Carbon credits are a source of income for nearly 80% of family forestland owners.  The combination of the right environment; policy and market incentives to grow trees has increased interest in family forest management.

WLI 2009: classroomSocietal interest in forestry and in understanding forest management on private lands is evident.  Students from area schools work with landowner associations to visit family forestlands.  Government funding is used to secure long term arrangements with private landowners for use of their land for educational purposes.  These arrangements include funds for the schools to conduct the trips, payments and tax incentives to landowners and contracts with landowner associations.  Education at a young age helps sustain interest in forests and support for the family forestland owner.

The culture of owning a second home or small rural acreage common in 2009 has changed to that of a focus on the convenience, efficiency and costs savings found in city living.  A reduction in wood use for residential building has occurred as people are moving from the rural areas and rural properties back to the cities.  The high cost of energy and the efficiency gained by living in urban residential and multifamily housing are the main drivers of this trend.  Multi-family houses are more efficient to heat and living in cities provides access to public transportation.  These factors have also reduced the fragmentation of rural lands.  The reduction in wood use for construction has been balanced by an increase in wood use for energy production.

Communication technologies and the ability to remotely monitor forest stand conditions have merged.  Landowners who have an interest in harvesting their trees are installing monitoring devices that can be used to alert loggers as to when to time their harvest operations to minimize soil disturbance.  The cost of the technology is more than offset by the protection of the natural resources.  Environmental organizations are asking state legislators to make use of the sensors mandatory on sites where harvest is adjacent to wetlands, streams, and lakes.

Some landowners are using monitoring devices to deter theft of high value trees and to optimize the sale of these trees. For example, the device can be implanted into the base of the tree to monitor tree health, a radio signal is used to send data directly the owners website via wireless internet connection.  If the tree is cut, the monitor registers the change in tree health and automatically sends notification to the owner. This is similar to the home sentry services available in 2009.

As a part of this process participants in the Woodland Leadership Institute looked through a variety of technical and non-technical forestry publications from the late 1950’s to help them understand the changes that have occurred over the last fifty years and to try and understand what might be possible 50 years from now.

Each of the topics presented in this story can be debated and challenged.  A deeper understanding of current forest management, incentive programs, and policies regarding private land can be gained through debate and discussion of the propositions stated in this article.  The aim is to provide a spirited debate that is respectful, that provides a learning experience and that helps people begin the process of adapting to the changing environmental, social, political, economic, cultural and technological trends that affect family forestland owners.


[1] The 2009 Woodland Leadership Institute was a joint effort of the University of Wisconsin – Extension and the University of Minnesota Extension.  The goal of the Institute is to build leadership capacity for local, regional, and statewide woodland landowner organizations.

Mike's work addresses legal and financial aspects of woodland ownership. He's based in Cloquet.

You may also like