There are more than 40,000 family forest landowners in Oregon today. They mostly go unnoticed, although they produce 16 percent of Oregon's wood products and maintain lands important for drinking water, wildlife and recreation. Combined, they own five million acres of prime Oregon forestland, or 40 percent of Oregon's private forests, in parcels ranging from two acres to 5,000 acres or more.

There are more than 40,000 family forest landowners in Oregon today. They mostly go unnoticed, although they produce 16 percent of Oregon's wood products and maintain lands important for drinking water, wildlife and recreation. Combined, they own five million acres of prime Oregon forestland, or 40 percent of Oregon's private forests, in parcels ranging from two acres to 5,000 acres or more.

Some family forests are in their fifth or sixth generation of ownership. Not untypical are Bob and Margaret Kintigh, Lane County owners of Mountain Home Ranch, who last year were lauded as the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. Their tree farm consists of 249 acres of forestland plus Christmas tree acreage. This working forest has been the major source of the family's income for 45 years.

Many other Oregon family forest landowners have non-forestry careers that provide their livelihoods. If you asked my family why we plant trees that we are unlikely to see harvested in our lifetimes, our answers would speak to family legacy, beauty, protection of nature — and fun. This diversity of management goals for the land, environmental, social and economic, contributes significantly to Oregon's quality of life and to the quality of our environment.

But, will these family forests continue through the next generation? In Oregon, 20 percent of family forestland owners are 75 years old or older. In many cases, the next generation has no interest in managing forestlands, or lacks the financial ability to do so. When inheritance taxes come due, if the family is unprepared, a crisis can ensue. Trees may be cut to pay taxes, or the property sold for development. While families may not want to see their lands converted, there is tremendous pressure to transform tree farms for subdivisions or shopping malls or other nonforest uses. Nationwide, almost 2 million acres of forestland are annually being converted, and this is likely to be just the edge of a tidal wave.

The economic sustainability of private forests is a very significant component of this issue. Since 1980, real prices received for timber products have declined, while the values of alternative uses have escalated, along with the costs of providing more benefits desired by the public and mandated through regulation such as enhanced wildlife habitat. It may not be financially feasible or equitable for families to shoulder these burdens alone.

Fortunately, there is optimism on a number of fronts. Incentives such as conservation easements and carbon credits are emerging as alternatives to exclusive reliance on regulation, and programs like OSU's "Ties to the Land" are being developed to assist families with keeping their lands. In Europe, a family forest management plan might project 400 years into the future. Innovative financial incentives and long-term planning that involves the younger generation can help keep family forests intact for the future.

Forests are deeply ingrained in Oregon's heritage and culture. We Oregonians have a strong connection with forests and open spaces. There is little question that family forests, with their diverse mix of ownerships, management styles and wildlife habitat, contribute to the diversity of Oregon's landscape and economy. But, the challenges they face are significant, and innovative new policies will be needed to sustain their contributions to out quality of life in the future.

Clint Bentz is an Oregon family forest landowner, a CPA, and the Chairman of the American Tree Farm System, a family forest conservation program with 90,000 members throughout the U.S. His family was named the 2002 National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year.