A major threat to forest ecosystems is the fragmentation of property as it passes from one generation to the next. Often with a desire to be fair to all children, parents divide the property into lots and leave one to each child. The process repeats itself as the next generation divides their lot among multiple heirs. Those who live at a distance from the property or have little interest or time in tending to the woodland may sell the property to investors. Sometimes, inadequate estate planning makes it necessary for heirs to sell the property to meet their inheritance tax burden. For these and other reasons, continguous forests are broken into segments which are too small to support native plants and animals. Wildlife travel corridors can be disrupted and food sources diminished. These types of problems can be avoided when landowner families plan thoughtfully for the transition of ownership. Often this requires conversations that can be uncomfortable as few of us like to contemplate our own demise. Finding tools to help with the conversations is important and legacy planning resources at The James C. Finley Center for Private Forests are a good place to start. (Visit https://ecosystems.psu.edu/research/centers/private-forests/news/at-the-center-forest-legacy-and-estate-planning.)
Of course, good estate planning requires sound legal advice. Landowners should note, however, that many estate planning attorneys are not familiar with issues of passing forest land from one generation to another. This means that landowners will have to educate themselves and have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish. It is one thing to plan how assets might be passed on within a 40 – 50 year horizon. But this is just the blink of an eye in the life span of a forest. Those who love their woods and want to preserve them as an resource for future generations may be thinking in terms of 100 years or more into the future.
One valuable approach for preserving woodlands, is to work with a land trust to place a conservation easement on the property so that it cannot be developed. This, too, requires much thought, legal advice, and family conversations. Information about land trusts is available at the Landtrust Alliance ( https://landtrustalliance.org). The Landtrust Alliance website can also help landowners find a landtrust in their geographic area.