The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry recently announced big changes to its Private Forest Management (PFM) program. The program is facing some major reductions. Landowners will notice the changes.
The PFM program’s annual budget was cut by 75% from $2 million to $500,000. While PFM forester capacity will not drop by quite that much, it will be reduced from an average of 15-17 full time equivalents over the past several years to only 12, seven of which will be funded by grants, rather than state funds. These staff, along with private sector partners, will be responsible to serve Minnesota’s 200,000 family woodland owners.
How will this capacity be deployed? DNR PFM foresters will focus on three primary responsibilities:
- Reviewing and recording Stewardship Plans written by private sector foresters,
- Working with landowners in a technical assistance role to implement Stewardship Plan recommended practices on the ground, and
- Landscape-level stewardship projects, which are a key priority for the DNR and USDA, which funds the Stewardship Program. This role will focus on working collaboratively with multiple public and private partners through Minnesota’s six regional Landscape Committees.
Rising private sector contributions: A written forest management plan is required to enroll in Minnesota’s Sustainable Forests Incentives Act (SFIA) and 2c Managed Forest Lands property tax classification, both of which require other commitments but also carry substantial financial benefits to the landowner. These financial benefits changed the economics of Stewardship Plans, making landowners more comfortable spending money for professional advice in the form of a written plan because they’d recoup their costs in only a few years. This is part of the reason why Stewardship Plan development has shifted hard to the private sector in the past few years: Between 2009 and 2011, the share of Stewardship Plans written by private consulting foresters has increased from 58% to 82% (Figure 1). The private sector seems well positioned to maintain this role.
But… formal written land management plans are only part of the story. In my 2010 survey of over 1,000 Minnesota woodland owners, only 23% had a written management plan. Yet 45% had received woodland information from a public sector forester, compared with only 22% from a private sector (private consultant or industry) forester.
So what kind of information are woodland owners getting from public sector foresters? In many cases, they’re getting practical information about how to manage their woods: When to harvest, what species to take or leave, how to ensure adequate regeneration and a healthy, productive post-harvest stand, how to protect the site during harvest operations, and how to have successful and positive land management outcomes. In other words, practical advice that creates value not only for the landowner today, but for society in the short- and long-term. It’s recognition of this value that makes investments in private forest management programs worthwhile, and that has sustained these investments until now.
In this light, it’s wise for the PFM program to focus its limited capacity on implementation activities (e.g. tree planting, timber harvest). But with only the equivalent of 12 full-time foresters statewide, the program will be stretched very thin to serve these needs for 200,000 woodland owners, given other responsibilities.
The value of good advice. Advice from a natural resource professional has been shown in a variety of studies to improve outcomes not only to landowners but to all of us from timber harvest operations; that’s why states have traditionally invested in private landowner assistance programs. To the extent that private forests provide public goods in terms of water quality protection, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and storage, and so on, we may all notice the effects of these service reductions. Less access to this kind of advice will not only hurt landowners, but the rest of us as well.
Where will landowners turn instead? Knowledgeable landowner volunteers like Woodland Advisors may become more common sources of advice, helping their peers make more efficient use of professional resources and quality information. Landowners trust their peers, and small investments in programs like Woodland Advisor generate value for landowners and can lead to more efficient use of limited professional resources.
But when it’s time to harvest or plan the next rotation, there’s no substitute for one-on-one work with a local natural resource professional. Minnesota has an excellent community of professional consulting and industry foresters ready to serve the state’s landowners. The challenge for the forestry community is to help landowners understand the many benefits, and the financial value, of investing in the services of a professional.
Foresters sure aren’t known for our public relations work, and while many landowners know from experience the value of professional advice, many do not. Landowners haven’t had to pay for that advice in the past because DNR foresters did not, until recently, charge for most services. But they will have to if they’re to benefit from experience and advice from a local professional in the future. And because private forest lands generate value for all of us, we will all lose if those lands are managed less well in the future.
What do you think? Have you worked with a public or private sector forester? How will reductions and changes in the DNR’s PFM program affect you?