Whose Woods Are These?

Two years ago, a group of small forest landowners became convinced that the “problem” of many small, privately-owned parcels was in fact an opportunity, for them and for the region. Just as produce growers form agricultural cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining power, pool their resources, and add value to their products, so could forest growers use the co-op structure to help themselves and the local economy

by David T. Damery and Arthur Eve – © 2001

Northeast families are placing big value on their small forests

Western Massachusetts revels in its forested landscape. Its year ‘round beauty attracts visitors from all over the world, and residents cherish it. But the forest that blankets much of the landscape is in reality a patchwork quilt of individual family plots. Unlike many states, much of the forest here is owned in small parcels by private, nonindustrial landowners–about 220,000 plots in all, ranging in size from several dozen to several hundred acres.

While vistas of rolling green, heavily forested hills are easy to find here, it’s also a fact that Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state in the nation. Suburban sprawl is an ever-present threat to the recreational, educational, and economic interests the forest supports. And increased pressure to restrict logging on federal lands out West has caused the forest industry to look eastward to feed the demand for wood and wood products. Meanwhile, Bay Staters themselves import nearly 95 percent of their forest products!

Enter the Massachusetts Family Forest cooperative. Two years ago, a group of small forest landowners became convinced that the “problem” of many small, privately-owned parcels was in fact an opportunity, for them and for the region. Just as produce growers form agricultural cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining power, pool their resources, and add value to their products, so could forest growers use the co-op structure to help themselves and the local economy. They recognized that many residents of the western counties where they are located strongly support sustainable development and community-based enterprise.

Today, the cooperative’s mission statement reads that Massachusetts Family Forests exists “to maintain the environment and character of Western Massachusetts through the protection, enhancement, and careful economic development of one of the region’s most plentiful resources, the forest.”

Up the learning curve

At the time the group was first forming, not many small forests in the state were being actively managed. This is a situation that brings lower timber and overall property values, as well as a higher chance of diseased trees and forest fires. Many owners have no formal training or only scant knowledge of the forestry business, since the typical parcel may only be logged once in ten, twenty-five or even fifty years. In between, a lot of new knowledge and expertise is gained.

It was time to do some homework, which included researching similar efforts in Wisconsin and Vermont where sustainable forestry co-ops have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (see Digging Deeper). But the landowners needed to learn about more than good forestry practices. They needed to learn about the business of selling trees. What are called “stumpage fees”–the money a landowner receives from selling standing trees to a logger or sawmill–can vary more than 1,000 percent! An uninformed landowner can leave tens of thousands of dollars on the table, simply by not inviting the right bidders to take a seat.

The landowners formed a steering committee to direct their activities and a committee of experts in forestry, business management, marketing, and cooperatives to advise them. Support came from many sources, including the University of Massachusetts, the state’s Department of Environmental Management, the Massachusetts Forest Stewardship Program, and the Cooperative Development Institute.

Slowly, the vision took shape. The landowners decided to focus on improving the profitability of abundant, lower value woods for flooring, framing timber, barn siding and bark mulch. High value woods would be carefully harvested and converted to value-added products in Massachusetts rather than shipping them overseas as whole logs.

The co-op idea is planted

In addition to all the research and planning they had to do, prospective co-op members needed reliable information about how much interest there was in their idea. So last summer nearly 1,000 of the region’s small landowners were surveyed about joining the cooperative. Nearly a third of respondents indicated a substantial interest, and more than half wanted to know more.

Based on this positive response, the steering committee developed a list of several dozen potential services the co-op might offer. Priority was given to forest and wildlife management, preservation and protection. Gaining access to federal and state programs, and working with local loggers, sawmills, and manufacturers were also emphasized.

After numerous consultations and discussions, the group is going ahead with the next step, to incorporate as a cooperative owned by its member landowners. In meetings, members share what they are learning about best forest practices, sustainable certification, and opportunities for value-added marketing of forest products.

Step by step, a group of individual families is coming together to offer a brighter future to their own descendants, to their communities, and to the economy and ecology of the Northeast region. That’s the power of cooperation.

You can read a fascinating and more detailed account in the March 2001 edition of the Journal of Forestry (“Massachusetts Family Forests: birth of a landowner cooperative” by Paul Barten, David Damery, et al.) or contact this article’s authors directly:

David Damery, Building Materials and Wood Technology program, University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Tel. 413-545-1770 or email: ddamery [Email address: ddamery #AT# forwild.umass.edu - replace #AT# with @ ]

Arthur Eve, Eve-Cowles Tree Farm (Conway) Tel. 413-549-3973 or email: aeve [Email address: aeve #AT# mediaone.net - replace #AT# with @ ]

Vermont Family Forests – This Forest Stewardship Council certified co-op includes 30 families with 5,300 acres. Its first major sale was for Middlebury College’s new Science Center. It also sells hardwoods to local furniture maker Beeken/Parsons in Shelburne.

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Last updated: April 1, 2009