Tites to the Land: Family Forest Succession from One Generation to the Next

The most recent statistics1 about Michigan's forest resources reveal that there are more than 20 million acres of forest land in the state. Of this vast resource, well over 50 percent of acreage is owned by non-corporate and individual forest landowners. In addition, there is currently more than 440,000 family forest or private landowners in Michigan by most estimates. Consequently, this is a sizeable financial asset in Michigan (i.e. just considering the value of the land and timber alone) that is under control by private entities.

Many of these private forest landowners really value the natural asset that they own and enjoy their forest land whenever they get the chance – by themselves or with their families. Whether they hunt in the fall, cross-country ski in the winter, go mushrooming and hiking in the spring and summer, or implement an occasional timber harvest on their property, many of these landowners feel inextricably tied to their land. And for many landowners, the longer they have owned the property, the stronger that bond to the land.

However, as our society continues to age (e.g. the aging baby boomers) many landowners have begun to wonder what will happen to their beloved forest land after they die and pass on.

But these same forest statistics also provide another startling fact about private forest owners. A large proportion of these owners are aging fast; more than 39 percent of forest owners are 69 years old or more. Thus, a shift in land ownership from one generation to the next will likely occur very soon as these current owners pass on. So, the question becomes: Will this transfer be planned for ahead of time or dealt with after these owners are deceased?

Although many private owners consider their forest land a special part of their family legacy, they may not have shared this special attachment with their kids. So, when the time comes for the forest land to pass on to the next generation they may be faced with a variety of challenges, ranging from unexpected tax burdens to a general lack of understanding about what their parents' desires were for the land. Many times, this lack of succession planning leads to chopping up the acreage into smaller parcels of property and/or outright sale of this land as well as many family conflicts.

Many of these actions lead to other changes as well. Subdividing large parcels into smaller units may make management for timber or other natural resources more difficult or uneconomical. In addition, negative impacts on wildlife habitat can occur -particularly for those animals such as deer and bear that range over large areas. So there may be ecological, financial as well as family consequences as well when the transfer of this forested asset is not planned for in advance.

Kidd is an forestry educator with MSU Extension, 989-275-5043 or kidd@anr.msu.edu. Contact him for information about upcoming seminars on family forest succession.