OSI conducting in-depth study of forest ownerships

NEW YORK, NY — June 15, 2010 — The Open Space Institute (OSI) is collaborating with timberland owners on a study that seeks to identify ways to keep some of the country’s largest forestland ownerships in forest use.

The Private Forestland Planning Collaborative is designed to identify the role of large ownerships in holding together the country’s mosaic of private working forests, creating and retaining jobs, and protecting drinking water sources and wildlife habitat. OSI has retained American Forest Management, Inc. (AFM), a respected forestry consulting and appraisal organization, to manage data collection, mapping and interviews.

To conduct their research, OSI and AFM are working with as many as 30 of the largest Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs), Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and family landowners on the East Coast.

The study will produce a series of maps that will identify opportunities to work with landowners to protect high-priority forestland that’s at the greatest risk of conversion to incompatible uses. The mapping methodology is structured to first identify forestlands that provide high economic, water quality and biodiversity values and then overlay that information with the potential for the lands’ conversion to non-forest uses. No specific ownerships will be identified and all data is subject to a strict confidentiality agreement.

An accompanying report will examine the interests and challenges facing TIMOs, REITs and large family owners. The report will be disseminated to policymakers, landowners, industry groups and conservationists as to tool to increase conservation funding streams and to create a unified conservation agenda to ensure that America’s largest forests remain working forests.

OSI has assembled an Advisory Committee made up of investors, former forestry executives, policymakers and other forest industry professionals to assure that its research is relevant, timely, and reaches the appropriate audiences. The committee includes Scott Jones, CEO of the Forest Landowners Association, as well as Carlton Owen, president and CEO of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and Ann Bartuska, deputy chief of research and development at the U.S. Forest Service.

The Advisory Committee will ensure that researchers uses objective and scientific methods. The study is not designed to promote any particular solution but instead will provide the objective data to help diverse stakeholders advance a range of interventions that could include increased funding for conservation easements, tax incentives or new markets.

“Private forests are an essential part of our nation’s infrastructure, and this project will produce the necessary data to sensibly plan for the future while avoiding unnecessary regulation based on assumptions about the future sustainability of our forests,” said Scott Jones, an advisor.

In the last 20 years, an estimated 60 million acres of forestland changed hands from forest product companies to financial investors. In 2006 alone, 10 million acres of timberland changed hands across the country, and although sales have slowed over the past two years, as many as 50 to 60 million forestland acres could change hands over the next decade, based on historical averages.

The rapid changes in ownership may not result in a direct loss of forest cover, but they do cause the fragmentation that leads to the loss of economic opportunities, ecological values and water quality.

OSI’s research will provide critical insight into the increasingly complex issue of forest conversion, said Charles Thompson, a forester at GMO Renewable Resources, one of the largest TIMOs in the east and a participant in the study.

“We’re like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot of water,” Thompson said. “Even as we manage the forest, the context around us is changing. It’s a lot more work and much more expensive to manage smaller pieces of forestland, and at some point you realize that you’re operating an island. You may still have tree cover, but the working forest, jobs, biodiversity and the quality of wildlife habitat are gone.”

Similar studies in the past have sought to identify forestland conservation strategies, but the Private Forestland Planning Collaborative takes the critical next step by reaching out to the landowners themselves. By identifying the location of forestlands and their natural resource values, the report defines the important opportunity to protect these values, create and retain jobs, and support the forest products industry.

To date, landowners representing more than 15 million acres of forest have agreed to participate in the study. Participants will have the opportunity to review and comment on study methods and messaging, as well as obtain final and specifically tailored results prior to publication.

The Open Space Institute and American Forest Management both bring unique qualifications to the project. Over the past decade, OSI has conducted research on forest trends and helped to finance large-scale working forest easements in northern New England that resulted in the protection of 1.6 million acres. OSI’s Forestland for Sale, a 2008 case study on the 600,000-acre Mahoosuc region on the Maine–New Hampshire border, found that the average corporate ownership in the region has decreased from 100,000 acres two decades ago to around 13,000 acres today.

American Forest Management has experience in over 1,200 forestland transactions and offices in 15 states. AFM currently manages more than 4.5 million acres of privately owned timberland, affording it an intimate perspective on both the needs and obligations of today’s landowners.

By analyzing input from a broad range of participants, OSI and AFM anticipate that the Private Forestland Planning Collaborative will speak powerfully but objectively about the benefits of intact, working forests.

“When I was in forestry school,” said Carlton Owen, an advisor for the study, “I never met a person whose only goal was to make a profit and destroy the environment. Not one. So, when we start looking at each other and asking ‘What can we do together?’ then it becomes a whole different conversation. OSI is bringing that to the conversation.”

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