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Extension and The Future of Family Forests: Making Connections

John C. Bliss

Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA. 97331.


In this paper I address three questions: Why sustain family forests? What are the major challenges to sustaining family forests? and, What roles can extension forestry play in sustaining family forests? Family forests are critical components of forested landscapes around the world, providing a unique and valuable set of ecological, economic, and social values. Sustaining family forests is challenged by profound changes occurring in 1) environmental conditions, 2) land tenure patterns and institutions, 3) the globalization of markets, communications, and politics, and 4) changes in social demographics and values. I propose "sustaining family forests" as a worthy mission for extension forestry, and suggest that achieving this mission will require facilitating connections; 1) between forest owners and their neighbors across the landscape, 2) between forest owners and global markets, and, 3) between forest owners and the public.

About the Author

John Bliss holds the position of Starker Chair in Private and Family Forestry in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, U.S.A. Dr. Bliss earned degrees in cultural anthropology and forestry from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has worked in the field of nonindustrial private forestry for 20 years, first as a private lands forester for the State of Wisconsin, then as an forestry extension specialist at Auburn University, Alabama. John has published extensively on forest-based rural development, private forest policy, public attitudes toward forest practices, and social science research applications in forestry. In his free time, John enjoys bicycling, backpacking, skiing, and playing jazz guitar.


Corvallis, Oregon, where I live, is a college town of 50,000 souls at the feet of the Coast Range Mountains, about an hour's drive from the North Pacific. The Coast Range is a maze of narrow valleys and ridges scraped up from the ocean floor as two massive tectonic plates collided. The Douglas-fir forests that cover the slopes of these low mountains are among the most productive forests on the planet.

When I moved to Corvallis in 1998, I visited dozens of people with some sort of connection to the forests, trying to gain an understanding of the issues. One of my first conversations was with an environmental activist, Reid Behrens, who had moved to Oregon from San Francisco. Reid had been among the first citizens to contact me in my new capacity as manager of a 260-acre demonstration forest. Reid had organized neighbors of the forest in protest over the initial harvests on the property, and was anxious to check out the new manager. Over coffee at a local coffee shop, he told me how he had wept when he first drove north along the Pacific Coast, and encountered Oregon's Coast Range forests. Instead of the vast, pristine old growth forests he envisioned, what he saw were great swaths of destruction: huge gaping scars of clearcuts torn out of the sides of the mountains. The spectacle of such wanton destruction, he said, brought him to tears, and fueled his zeal to bring a halt to it. Reid's Coast Range is a despoiled place, a raped place, a place begging for relief and protection from the insatiable hunger of humans.

Shortly after this conversation, I met with Thad Springer, a logger and forest owner from Harlan, a tiny logging and farming community snuggled in the Big Elk Creek Valley deep within the Coast Range. He'd agreed to drive me around the area in his pickup and show me his tree farm. As we bounced along on gravel and dirt roads, sometimes climbing steeply up the mountainside, then following the Big Elk Creek, Thad constantly pointed out places of significance to his life: the site of the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child, a remnant snag from the Yaquina fire of the 1850's which reduced much of the Coast Range forest to ashes, the stand of fir that was "nothing but a fern patch" when he was a kid, the hillside he used to slide down on his way to school, the church where three generations of his family had been married, the church yard where family members are buried.

Thad's Coast Range has the familiarity of neighborhood. Its forest is a mosaic of stands - some harvested yesterday, some 50 years ago. The cut patches move across the landscape, but the forest endures. Each patch of timber is, in Thad's memory, attached to some individual who cut it, or planted it, or grazed it. Some farmer who cared for the forest, or didn't. Thad's landscape is a humanized landscape, in which natural and human resources are intertwined, inseparable.

But it is a landscape in the throes of major ecological, economic, and social change. Thad's hometown of Harlan is a ghost town; its once-thriving mills are closed, most of its residents have moved to the city to find work. Over the years, large portions of the patchwork of family-owned farms and forests have been transformed incrementally into a less diverse landscape of large, intensively managed corporate tree farms, and large, National Forest reserves. Local forest products mills have all but disappeared, and mergers and acquisitions have produced new, unfamiliar, distant companies competing in global markets.

The timber-based economy and culture, once so central to Oregon’s identity, now seems a quaint historical relic to most Oregonians. Today’s citizens are more likely to associate Oregon's economy with Nike and Intel, rather than with Willamette or Weyerhaeuser; with microchips rather than woodchips. Most fail to make the connection between their wood frame houses, log trucks in heavy interstate traffic, and clearcuts on the mountainsides. And very few realize that most of the timberland in the United States is owned by non-industrial, private owners.

Reid and Thad's competing views of the forest, and the ecological, economic, and social changes underway in the Oregon Coast Range, are illustrative of forces affecting family forests all around the globe. Although the circumstances vary with differences in culture, history, form of government, and land tenure relations, family forest owners everywhere share some common attributes. By referring to the Oregon situation, about which I know at least a little, I’ll try to heed the advice of that great American philosopher, Mark Twain, who admonished us that “It is better to know a few facts that is, than many that ain’t.”

My observations from Oregon present a context for considering three questions might be of some value to our discussions over the next few days:

  • Why sustain family forests in the landscape?
  • What are the major challenges to sustaining family forests?
  • What roles can extension forestry play in sustaining family forests?

Before proceeding with these questions, a definition is in order. I use the term "family forest" to emphasize the unique attributes of non-industrial private forests owned by families or individuals, and to distinguish them from other ownerships in the NIPF category such as banks, pension funds, real estate companies, and other corporate entities. The term "family forest" is somewhat imprecise, but it conveys the essence of a great many of these ownerships, namely, the centrality of family attachments, values, and objectives to management of the forest. Although I’ll be speaking about family forests, my observations may be relevant to many other non-public, non-corporate ownerships such as community and tribal forests.

In the United States, family forests are tremendously important by virtue of their extent alone; non-industrial private forests comprise 59 percent of the nation’s timberland, the bulk of that being held by individuals and families (Birch 1994). Even in a state such as Oregon, where public and industrial forests dominate, over 4 million acres of forestland are owned by families. Here in Australia over one quarter of the forest is privately owned (Dargavel 1995), much of it in the hands of family farmers and ranchers.

Now to the three questions I posed. I’ve organized my discussion of these questions around the familiar sustainability triad of social, economic, and ecological considerations, resulting in a three by three matrix (Table 1). This is certainly not the only way to approach the topic, but it has the advantages of simplicity and familiarity.

Why Sustain Family Forests in the Landscape?

Ecological Dimension

About three years ago I set out to test a hypothesis that I suspect many of you have intuitively assumed to be true, namely, that a diverse pattern of forestland ownership correspondingly supports a diverse forest. The Coast Range, with its large expanses of National Forest, vast industrial tree farms, and thousands of family forest ownerships, is an ideal test case. Using statistical spatial analysis, graduate student Brooks Stanfield and I systematically examined relationships between forest ownership patterns and patterns of forest habitat diversity in the Coast Range (Stanfield and Bliss, In Press).

What we found confirmed our hunch: the spatial arrangement of public, industrial, and non-industrial private forestlands has a huge impact on forest diversity. Where the ownership composition is diverse, the forest composition is diverse. Moreover, each ownership type contributes a different mix of forest conditions to the landscape. Non-industrial private ownerships, for example, provide a wild mixture of young to medium aged conifer stands, extensive hardwood stands, as well as pasture, cultivated fields, abandoned cropland, and open woodland. This unique mixture contributes ecological diversity to landscapes otherwise dominated by the conifer plantations of industrial forestland, or the maturing stands of Douglas-fir found on public forests in the region.

So, why sustain family forests in the landscape? From an ecological point of view, family forests make a unique contribution to landscape diversity; one that is distinct from that made by other ownership categories. In contrast to industrial forests, which reflect the economic bottom-line focus of shareholders, and public forests, which adhere to national directives, family forests manifest the wide range of objectives, values, capabilities, and constraints of their diverse owners.

Table 1: Family forest goals and challenges, and corresponding roles for extension forestry.

Why sustain family forests?

What are the challenges to sustaining family forests?

What role can extension play?

  • Healthy, diverse ecosystems
  • Clean water supply
  • Abundant habitat
  • Rapidly evolving science
  • Landscape health, diversity
  • Forest fragmentation, loss
  • Connect owners with each other
  • Connect owners with forest science
  • Economically viable forestry
  • Healthy, diverse, resilient rural economy
  • Stable resource supply
  • Global competition
  • Ownership consolidation, fragmentation
  • Conversion to non-forest uses
  • Connect owners with markets
  • Vibrant rural culture
  • Multiple social values
  • Strong social contract
  • Changing values
  • Consumption-production disconnect
  • Weak social contract
  • Connect owners with the public

Challenges to Ecological Sustainability

Challenges to the ecological sustainability of family forests exist at multiple levels, from the forest stand, to the landscape, and beyond.

Many family forests are models of resource stewardship, and others are not. Occasional financial contingencies, persistent rural poverty, short ownership tenure, and ignorance result in poor forest stocking, sub-optimal composition, and low productivity on some lands. Such conditions have always challenged extension foresters, and they probably always will.

Added to these perennial problems are challenges to family forest sustainability that span entire watersheds, landscapes, and eco regions. Water quality and quantity, loss of endangered species habitat, wildfire, and forest health concerns are prominent examples of landscape-level problems whose solutions require cooperation across ownership boundaries.

Moreover, major changes to the forestland base are occurring. In the United States, an estimated 150,000 new non-industrial private forest owners emerge each year, slicing the NIPF pie into smaller and smaller slices (Sampson and Decoster 2000, Birch 1996). At the urban fringe of many metropolitan areas, forestland is being subdivided, resulting in fragmented habitat, non-operable forest ownerships, and increased fire risk.

At the same time, in the major timber-growing regions of the United States, forest industry and other corporate forest owners, (principally banks, pension fund companies, and real estate firms), pushed by global competition to merge and grow, are expanding and consolidating their ownerships. This is resulting in an alarming conversion of family forestland to corporate ownership. In Oregon’s Coast Range alone, some 20 thousand acres shift from non-industrial private to corporate ownership each year (Azuma et al. 1995). As corporate forests increasingly dominate the landscape, the ecological diversity associated with a mixed-ownership pattern vanishes.

What’s worse is the conversion from forestland to non-forest uses: pavement is, as they say, the final rotation. The loss of productive forestland is not restricted to the urban fringe; forestland in some prime recreational areas is rapidly being developed -- in some cases by major industrial forestry companies - for vacation homes, recreation destinations, and retirement centers. Clearly, the forest land base is dynamic.

Extension foresters have long helped forest owners solve their individual management problems. We’ve been the “go to guys” for forest owners with questions from what’s killing grandma’s favorite shade tree to how to design a timber harvest. There will always be demand for this kind of one-on-one assistance, but it will become more and more difficult to provide it: first, due to growth in the number of forest owners, and second because of the rapid growth of ecological knowledge. As the half-life of forest science information diminishes, we will be increasingly challenged to keep up with and disseminate current management recommendations.

But we are all beginning to realize that the solutions to our most challenging ecological problems do not lend themselves to this assistance-by-request, one ownership at a time approach. Water quality, species habitat, forest health, and forest retention – every major forestry issue we face today inescapably demands some degree of coordinated response across the landscape. Meeting this demand is especially challenging in the mixed-ownership landscapes with which we extension foresters typically deal.

I’ve recently completed a study of cooperative fire partnerships between ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service in the John Day Valley of Eastern Oregon (Bergmann 2001). Graduate student Stefan Bergmann and I wanted to understand the dynamics of cross-boundary cooperation, and fire partnerships seemed to be a good case to explore. The Valley has serious forest health problems in part stemming from the long-term exclusion of fire. The Forest Service realizes that it cannot implement the use of prescribed fire without the cooperation of neighboring ranchers.

What we learned is that the term “partnership” has a nice ring to it, but achieving it is a complex, difficult, long-term process. Complicated land tenure arrangements, differences in political, economic, and social power, diverse ideologies about the purpose of forests, and an atmosphere of rapid social change are obstacles to developing the trust required for cooperation.

Where might extension forestry fit into this picture? In my view, helping forest owners connect with their neighbours to identify and work toward achieving shared landscape goals is a role for which extension is uniquely well positioned.

Economic Dimension

Economic Value: Worldwide, private participation in the forestry sector has expanded significantly in the past decade (Landell-Mills and Ford 2001). The global trend appears to be toward increased reliance on privately owned forests and market-based instruments to produce the forest products upon which society depends. In the United States, non-industrial private forests comprise 59% of all commercial timberland, and about one-half of the timber harvest (Powell et al. 1992). In Oregon, where national forests have practically ceased to contribute to the nation’s demand for wood, the increased reliance on private forests is even more striking: although non-industrial private forests make up only 17% of Oregon’s forestland, their annual timber production is roughly equal to that from the 61% of the forestland that is publicly owned (ODF 1995)!

Challenges to Economic Sustainability

The challenges of running a financially successful family forest operation have always been substantial. Cyclical patterns in housing markets, fickle changes in consumer demand, product substitution, complicated taxation schemes and a host of other uncontrollable economic factors have always filled family forestry with uncertainty.

We are entering a period, however, from which we will look back with nostalgia to the simplicity of the present. Robert Friedman, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, describes the process of globalization, which he defines as, “The inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before” (p. 9). Friedman argues convincingly that, driven by the worldwide success of free market capitalism, “The traditional boundaries between politics, culture, technology, finance, national security and ecology are disappearing” (Friedman p. 20).

In contrast with the Cold War period, whose defining measurement was weight (particularly the throw weight of missiles), “the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed – speed of commerce, travel, communication and innovation” (p. 10).

Family forest owners everywhere sense that something fundamental has changed in the relationship between their forestry operation and the rest of the world. The lumber mill they used to sell logs to is no longer owned by a neighbor, but by a multi-national company. The price they receive no longer seems to reflect local market conditions, but instead hinges on markets half way around the globe. The forest management standards to which their performance is compared are no longer set exclusively by local foresters, but are influenced by international agreements and environmental organizations based in far off lands.

A clear example of how family forests are influenced by global forces is the movement toward adopting global standards for sustainable forest management. The process began at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, was further developed in Montreal in 1993, and adopted in Santiago in 1995. As a result, the United States, along with 11 other nations, has adopted the Montreal Process as a framework for measuring progress toward achieving sustainable forest management. In 1997 the National Association of State Foresters endorsed the Montreal Process as a framework for all forestlands in the United States, and in 1998 Oregon became the first state to formally adopt the criteria and indicators as the foundation for state forest planning. There is no question but what the Montreal Process will influence further development of the state’s forest practices rules; the rules with which family forest owners must comply.

Closely related to, but distinct from the development of such international agreements is the emergence of forest certification and eco-labeling schemes. Though only in their infancy, such schemes are tangible evidence of the growing global influence of environmentalism on markets. Forest product certification is in such a state of flux that it is impossible to predict which schemes will prevail, but it is highly unlikely that the demand for environmental accountability will be reversed. Where once good forest stewardship meant whatever local foresters understood it to mean, today’s measures of good stewardship are being hotly debated, formally codified, and adopted as official policy – and the debate is occurring simultaneously around the world.

Extension forestry can do much to help family forest owners navigate the uncharted waters of the global marketplace.

Social Dimension

Human Value: Perhaps the least recognized value that family forests bring to the landscape is human value. But it is this human quality that provides the foundation for the other values these forests contribute: the diversity of human aspirations, capabilities, values and knowledge drives the diversity in forest conditions that we observe among family forestlands. Family forest owners bring a human scale to the landscape, integrating elements of wildness and cultivation, protection and production, into management of their properties. They are also members of rural communities, contributing to rural vitality at a time when many rural areas are undergoing out-migration and decline. Family forest owners help maintain a connection between society and the resources upon which we are all dependent – a connection most in society have lost sight of.

Challenges to Social Sustainability

Social challenges to sustaining family forests are the most critical of all. In democratic nations, all natural resources, including private forests, are managed within the terms of a largely unwritten social contract. This agreement reflects society’s values and expectations regarding forests, outlines the rights and responsibilities of resource owners, and defines, however imprecisely, what forestry behavior is acceptable and what is not. The contract is continually revised in response to demographic changes, changing social values, and our evolving understanding of ecosystem dynamics. Over the past three decades, as public concern over natural resources has grown, the terms of the social contract have undergone intense renegotiation, resulting in a total reversal in the direction of management on National Forests, and a proliferation of environmental protection legislation affecting private forest ownership.

In my judgment, family forest owners have been largely absent from and mostly ineffectual in negotiations over their contract with society. In the United States, most citizens are unaware that family forest owners even exist. Even my forestry graduate students are surprised to learn that most of the forestland in the country is held by non-industrial private forest owners. To the citizenry, family forest owners are invisible. Policy is made as if all the forest in the country were either public or industrial. There is not, and never has been, an integrated policy toward non-industrial private forests.

Is it surprising, then, that family forest owners feel ignored, misunderstood, or even vilified by society at large? How many of the forest owners you work with have expressed frustration over the lack of recognition they receive for their careful stewardship of the land?

In short, there is not a strong contract between family forest owners and society. A strong social contract requires two-way communication, some shared sense of purpose, and mutual trust. Building a strong social contract is, in my view, the principle challenge of sustaining family forests. It is a challenge to which extension forestry has much to contribute.

What Roles Can Extension Forestry Play?


So far I’ve tried to make two points; 1) that family forests should be sustained for the ecological, economic, and social values they bring to the landscape, and; 2) that sustaining family forests is fraught with daunting challenges. Now I take up the third question with which I began, “What role can extension forestry play?”

If you agree with my argument that family forests should be sustained, perhaps you’ll take the next step with me and agree that sustaining family forests is a worthy and powerful vision for extension forestry. Articulating a clear vision is a first step toward developing an action plan that has some chance of achieving it. I want to use my remaining time to outline, in very broad-brush strokes, a role that extension forestry could, and, in my view, should play to work towards achieving this vision. I'll illustrate with a few examples of ongoing extension projects.

Facilitating connections

The role of extension forestry in meeting each of the ecological, economic, and social challenges I’ve outlined can be summed up as “facilitating connections;” between forest owners across ownership boundaries, between owners and global markets, and between owners and the public.

Connecting forest owners with each other

First, forest owners must connect with each other and their neighbors, if the ecological challenges to sustainability in mixed ownership landscapes are to be met. We’re all hearing a great deal lately about the benefits of cross-boundary cooperation. But anyone who has worked in this arena knows that terms like “community forestry” or “conservation partnership” roll off the tongue much more easily than they are achieved. Family forest owners are notably absent in much of the current writing about cross-boundary cooperation, despite being critical to its success. Many family forest owners feel they have little to gain and much to lose by entering into any kind of cooperative relationship that might compromise their autonomy. In this politically charged, volatile arena, widely trusted, non-partisan facilitators are essential. Extension foresters have the credibility, the facilitation skills, and the knowledge of local society to facilitate making connections between family forest owners and their neighbors. Oregon's Watershed Councils and Landcare Australia are just two examples of cross-boundary cooperative efforts to which forestry extensionists are contributing.

Connecting forest owners with global markets

Second, if family forests are to be sustained, they must economically sustainable, and today, this necessitates some degree of savvy in negotiating global markets. We are all engaged in a global system of markets where ideas, as well as goods and services, are exchanged. Global markets affect not only the mix of products family forest owners can sell and the price they receive, but, increasingly, the standards by which those products are produced. Global forest products markets are so dynamic that no individual forest owner can possibly keep up. Forest products certification injects a new degree of uncertainty into an already complex system. Family forest owners feel overwhelmed and at the mercy of distant, unseen powers.

Extension forestry can play a key role in helping forest owners identify, understand, and negotiate on favorable terms in these new markets. Perhaps the IUFRO Extension Working Party would be the logical organization to develop an initiative in this arena. Imagine what could be accomplished if family forest owners around the planet were to develop some sense of common purpose!

Connecting forest owners with the public

Finally, the social contract for family forest owners can only be strengthened through improved communication between forest owners and the public. Extension forestry, with its reputation for fairness and objectivity, can facilitate that communication. In my view, facilitating communication between forest owners and the public might be the single most important role extension can play, for without a robust social contract, family forestry cannot survive.

Recognizing this, forestry extension at my home institution, Oregon State University, played a pivotal role in educating the State Board of Forestry on the importance of family forests, and promoting creation of the Board's Committee for Family Forestlands. That committee's first priority has been to elevate the profile of family forest owners in the public eye, and to begin building constructive working relationships between forest owners and others with compatible goals.


Playing the role of facilitator is not new to extension forestry. We are all aware of extension programs around the world that have conducted effective public issues education programs, or facilitated dialogue between forest owners and others. Helping landowners connect with their neighbors is a role that many extension systems are already playing.

A few exemplars not withstanding, my observation has been that such work is often done on time stolen from the more traditional extension programs that dominate job descriptions and evaluations. Most of us are hired to serve commodity producer groups, provide technical assistance, and respond to individual requests for information. Most of us are so swamped by these day-to-day demands that we seldom have the time or incentive to concentrate on the big picture.

Moreover, the very clientele we are attempting to serve are often more interested in receiving assistance with pruning trees than participating in tense dialogue with their urban neighbors. They would rather learn how to buck logs for maximum profit than negotiate watershed conservation plans with folks they don’t even know. And how many of us extension foresters would willingly trade basking in the adoration of our forest-owning clients with standing in the crossfire of an open public meeting?

Don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating that extension forestry abandon its historical role as a provider of education and information. To the contrary, forest owners need these services now more than ever. Especially in view of our rapidly evolving understanding of forest science, and the growing complexity of world markets, helping forest owners stay current is critical to their survival. But have we become so focused on individual forest owners’ trees that we’ve lost sight of the forest of which they are a part? Have we been so busy planting seedlings in the countryside that we’ve neglected to sow seeds of understanding in the city?

Beyond the essential task of keeping family forest owners well informed, sustaining the family forest requires making connections:

  • working connections between forest owners and their neighbors
  • agile connections to global markets
  • durable connections between forest owners and the public.

Extension forestry organizations around the world are uniquely suited to help create, strengthen, and maintain these connections. We have the expertise, we enjoy the trust of both forest owners and the public, and we care passionately about family forestry. If we embrace the mission of sustaining family forests, and redirect the resources necessary to support this mission, we can play an important role in achieving it.

My first step on this mission is to help my activist friend from San Francisco and my logger friend from Harlan talk about one fundamental value they share; a deep love for the forests of home.


1. Azuma, David L, Kevin R. Birch, Peter DelZotto, Andrew A. Herstrom, and Gary J. Lettman. 1999. Land use change on non-federal land in Western Oregon, 1973-1994. USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. 55 p.

2. Bergmann, Stefan. 2001. Conflict and cooperation at the public-private interface: A case study of fire management in eastern Oregon. Unpublished M.S. Thesis, Oregon State University.

3. Birch, Thomas W. 1996. Private forest-land owners of the United States, 1994. USDA Forest Service, NE Forest Exp. Station, Resource Bulletin NE-134. 183 p.

4. Broussard, Shorna. 2000. Sustainability awareness and commitment: Examining natural resource Extension programs in the United States. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Oregon State University.

5. Dargavel, John. 1995. Fashioning Australia's Forests. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

6. Friedman, Thomas L. 2000. The Lexus and the olive tree: Understanding globalization. New York: Anchor Books. 490 p.

7. Landell-Mills, Natasha, and Jason Ford. 1999. Privatising sustainable forestry: A global review of trends and challenges. Instruments for sustainable private sector forestry series. International Institute for Environment and Development. London.

8. Powell, Douglas S., Joanne L. Faulkner, David R. Darr, Zhiliang Zhu, and Douglas W. MacCleery. 1993. Forest resources of the United States, 1992. USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Exp. Station, Gen. Tech. Rep. RM-234.132 p.

9. Sampson, Neil, and Lester DeCoster. 2000. Forest fragmentation: Implications for sustainable private forests. Journal of Forestry 98(3):4-8.

10. Stanfield, Brooks J., John C. Bliss, and Thomas A. Spies. Land ownership and landscape structure: A spatial analysis of 66 Oregon Coast Range watersheds. Accepted for publication in Landscape Ecology.

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