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New Forest Owners Prefer Enjoying Their Land Over Working It

Karen Meisenheimer

Michael Jacobson (352) 846-0883

GAINESVILLE: A dramatic shift in the demographics of Florida’s private forest landowners indicates the traditional farmer may be giving way to the more white-collar, absentee landowner, according to a recent University of Florida survey.

Furthermore, results suggest many of those landowners prefer to use the property for fun instead of farming.

Non-industrial private landowners own more than 50 percent of the forest land in Florida, and the study developed By UF’s School of Forest ReSources and Conservation was designed to find out who these landowners are, where they live and why they own forest property.

“If I did this survey 20 or 30 years ago, the findings would have been a lot different,” said Michael Jacobson, an assistant professor of forestry with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “In the past, more forest landowners were blue-collar workers and farmers who managed their lands primarily for timber production.

“We knew there were absentee landowners, but never realized there would be this many,” said Jacobson, who conducted the survey.

The 29-question survey was sent to property owners with more than 20 acres of forest land. Results showed that 64 percent of the 1,017 respondents live away from their forests, and many of those live in cities or towns, using the land for recreation and relaxation.

“Today, they tend to be more educated and wealthier and prefer more environmental attributes of their land such as wildlife and recreation rather than just timber production,” he said. “They do not seem to have sentimental attachments to their land and are not as knowledgeable about land management.”

Jacobson, who also is an extension forester, said the state and the University of Florida must shift their educational and extension programs to target these new landowners.

“Now we have to learn how to deal with the professional who lives in Miami or Tampa and may not want to touch his or her forest,” Jacobson said.

With approximately 55 percent of the nation’s timber supply provided by private landowners, Jacobson said Florida’s 7.2 million acres of private forests are important suppliers of wood in an $8 billion industry.

Another trend in forest ownership is a decrease in the average size of a private owner’s land holding. Survey results show large forests are being divided up and sold to city dwellers. The number of forested parcels between 100 and 500 acres has decreased By 15 percent over the last 15 years, while the number of small parcels has increased.

“When the property is divided into 10- or 20-acre lots and sold to different individuals, it hurts the integrity of the land,” Jacobson said. “It’s also hard to manage the forest economically, and the owners just give it up.”

Wilson Rivers is not part of the new breed of forest owners. He and his wife live on their 2,500 acres of property in Union County, north of Gainesville.

The 76-year-old farmer leases several acres to cattle ranchers, but slash pine can be found on most of his property. Trees are cut every two to three years and sold for several different uses, including paper production, lumber and plywood.

“I’ll plant 100 acres in the fall of next year,” Rivers said. “There’s no telling when they’ll be cut. Probably 15 or 16 years later. It’s nice to know my trees will still be providing oxygen once I’m gone.”

As a member of the board of directors for the Florida Forestry Association, Rivers shares Jacobson’s concerns over the fragmentation of Florida’s forests. “If the land is not managed, you’re growing trees of no value,” he said. “It’s a waste.”

The next step for forest managers statewide, Jacobson said, is to find ways to target the new type of landowners and educate them on the consequences of not managing their forests.

A suggested management plan includes periodic harvests, planting new trees or allowing natural regrowth. It also requires controlled burns.

“There are environmentalists who say it’s a good thing to leave the land alone and have no human intervention,” Jacobson said. “But that intervention is needed in Florida. Trees grow very fast in this climate, and wildfires, pests and disease are risks that should be managed.”

Florida landowners can receive educational programs from the UF Cooperative Extension Service and technical assistant from the state Division of Forestry. Financial and tax incentives also are available to forest landowners.

“Many of these programs have been available for decades,” Jacobson said. “We have to make sure these programs keep up with the changing desires and needs of the forest landowner.”