If you have ever taken a road trip, you've probably driven through some of the 751 million acres of forest land in the United States. From the sweet-smelling pine trees of the southeast to the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, America's trees are an important part of our cultural heritage, our economy and our ecosystem. But do we know who is responsible for maintaining and protecting these forests?
You might be surprised to learn that the future of our woodlands rests largely on decisions made by your neighbors, your friends, your cousins and maybe even you. The vast majority of America's forests are in private hands, held by local landowners and families; only about 19 percent of our forests are actively governed by the USDA Forest Service, and the number of private landowners is expected to rise in coming years.
At the recent "It's Ours to Save" concert, benefitting the TREE Fund
and the American Forest Foundation
, I sat down with AFF President Tom Martin, who explained that the future of our forests is really in the hands of America's families. "So often, when I ask people about their land, they start by talking about the trees, but very quickly it shifts to them talking about what the land means to their family. For those folks, figuring out how to do right by their land is really important and that's what the American Forest Foundation is about. Our mission is to help them, to give them the tools and resources that they need to achieve the goals they have set for their land."
Despite good intentions, families are often harming their land without even realizing it. Martin used the example of how landowners often remove the older trees from the forests, leaving younger, developing trees behind. "What that means," Martin said, "Is that the forest is never as strong ecologically as it needs to be. You need to make sure that your best trees are doing well and over the long term the entire forest will benefit. You have to take the long-term view." Cutting a few choice pieces of timber may raise money now, but leaving those trees in place could make your land healthier and more productive for future generations.
And it's not just about what happens on your own land. Martin says that forest owners need to be aware of how their land affects the surrounding area. "We think of the forests as a bunch of trees, but really they are the filter for most of the drinking water in the United States. They also sequester carbon. In fact, forests are really the only way we have to take carbon out of the air on any massive scale. And it's also about wildlife. Whether it's just bird-watching, or whether it's going out and hunting, forests are essential for keeping wildlife. All of these things are tied up in the standard by which we maintain our forests."
While taking responsibility for these bigger issues may seem daunting to some landowners, Martin says the AFF is here to help. "The good news about conservation is that we have a whole variety of tools. We can help by advocating for better policy, by creating an atmosphere where it's easier for people to do right by their land. We can also help people to develop management plans. We can help them figure out how to conserve land over the long term as it's passed from generation to generation."
If you would like to learn more about stewardship and land conservation, visit the American Forest Foundation
or speak with one of its 5,000 volunteers who are already helping families like yours to ensure that America's forests stay beautiful.