CORVALLIS, Ore. - Gilbert Shibley loves to walk through the lush Clackamas County forest where his great-grandfather settled more than a century ago. Now Shibley, 68, is getting ready to pass it along to his four children and seven grandchildren - the fifth and sixth generations.
Shibley, a biologist and Master Woodland manager, and his wife Barbara have spent the last six years setting up the legal and financial mechanisms to do just that. "After my mother died in 1995," he said, "I learned a lot about the importance of setting up good ways to pass along forested estates."
Most family forest landowners haven't taken the steps the Shibleys have to ensure that their land passes smoothly to their heirs, say forestry experts. More than half Oregon's family forest owners are older than 65, and many are in their 70s or 80s. Thus many acres of family-owned forest land are poised to change hands in the next few years. Unless their owners act fast, many of these forest properties will likely be sold out of family ownership to developers, investors or industrial timber companies.
The fate of family forest lands is not only a personal issue for landowners and their families. It is an issue of public policy in states like Oregon, where family-owned forestlands comprise about 4.4 million acres and represent 17 percent of the forested acreage in the state, says Oregon State University professor John Bliss.
"Family forestland owners manage critical areas of the landscape," said Bliss, whose teaching and research focuses on private and family forests. "Their decisions have impacts far beyond their fence lines."
At the fringes of many U.S. cities, family forests are being subdivided to serve their so-called highest and best use - being converted to "residential mini-nature preserves for the wealthy, subdivisions for the middle class, retirement destinations for the aging, and shopping malls for everyone," said Bliss.
Because of historical settlement patterns, family forests tend to occupy lower-lying, more populous areas near towns. These forestlands offer "ecosystem services" to their urban neighbors - green space, wildlife habitat, clean streams - and impart a rural character to the suburban landscape that most city people appreciate. Their situation also makes family forests vulnerable to development pressures.
It's hard to hold onto forest land in the best of circumstances, says Clint Bentz, a Salem CPA and tree farmer. It's even harder when you inherit it without any preparation or training.
"Most people who inherit forest land don't have a clue what to do with it," said Bentz, who manages his family's Blue Den Ranch, LLC near Scio. "So it's easier for them just to sell it."
Bentz, who has many family-forest clients, is a co-author of a new workbook for family forest owners called "Ties to the Land: Your Family Forest Heritage," published by the Austin Family Business Program at OSU.
"Passing property from one generation to the next is legally and emotionally challenging," Bentz said. "It's uncomfortable for most families to talk about feelings, money and death. Guess what? If you want a workable succession plan, you have to talk about all three."
Family property - especially if it's "the home place" - can be an emotional minefield. "I've seen families disintegrate over the smallest matters, items that have little or no monetary value but have untold heirloom value," Bentz said. "Family forest land tends to be in that heirloom category."
So if families want to preserve their lands, and their family relationships, into the next generation, they need to tackle the hard emotional work. "And they need to do it yesterday," Bentz emphasized.
Lyle Defrees, 73, and his son Dean, 46, are in the midst of a succession process for their 2,000 acres of timber and farmland in Baker County. "We hope the ranch stays in the family another 100 years," said the elder Defrees, "but there's no way to ensure that."
Nevertheless, by taking charge now, they can ensure that the process goes more smoothly than it did when Lyle inherited the ranch from his parents. Says Dean: "My grandparents just didn't want to talk about it. It was an easy thing for them to put off."
Lyle Defrees created a limited liability company in 2000 as a business structure for the ranch. Then he started thinking about how to transfer the property to Dean and his wife, Sharon. The Defrees family is working with a lawyer to develop a regular schedule of gifts of land in order to avoid large tax liabilities.
Most family forest owners fiercely cherish their lands, said Bentz. If they start planning for succession now, he added, they make it more likely that their children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to cherish them just as much.
The "Ties to the Land" workbook is part of a project by the OSU Forestry Extension program and the Austin Family Business Program. One goal of the workbook is to help family forest owners pass on their lands successfully to the next generation. The workbook is a guide to help navigate the difficult steps of succession planning.
The "Ties to the Land" workbook and companion DVD are available from the Austin Family Business resource website, http://www.familybusinessonline.org/resources/workbooks.htm. Additionally, workbooks may be purchased over the phone by calling 541-737-3326 or toll free 800-859-7609.
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