Monday, March 5, 2007

Who SHOULD own the forests?

One of the stated objectives of this Blog is to look at HOW the ownership of timberland (a term used specifically to describe commercial forestland) is shifting as industry disposes of it's landholdings. As the process continues, some timberland merely changes ownership (remaining timberland) and some shifts totally out of the commercial realm into a "protected" state where timber products are no longer produced. In most cases, though, the land does continue as timberland but perhaps with less emphasis on timber production. But who are the new owners? TIMOs, as we have discussed; "small" private landowners of family forests, as discussed earlier; NGOs, to be discussed at a future time; and, finally, the government (federal, state and local).

Should our governments own any forestland at all? Should we stop government from pulling land out of the private sector and adding more to the continuously increasing amount of public ownership? Should we sell all of the National Forests to the private sector? If you answered "Yes, yes, yes", then you are a pure capitalist! The flip side would be to continue buying by government - buy everything available through outright purchase or by exercising the governments right of eminent domain. Private land ownership should be eliminated because the government can do a better job of forest management than the private sector can. Is that a good idea? If you answered "yes", then you are a pure communist and you can point to Russia to show how forestland should be managed.

But, like most Americans, you probably feel that there is a happy medium somewhere in between. There is a role for both public and private ownership. The real question is "Where do we draw the line?", and as this shift occurs, it makes sense to have a debate on the scope of increasing government ownership. As a case study, let's look at Bowater's decision to get rid of its land in Tennessee. The first step was to donate 3,700 acres to the State of Tennessee to be added to the state park system (no longer timberland). Phase two was for the State of Tennessee to purchase 12,500 acres which will probably also be transferred from the role of timberland and into the wilderness/park designation. As for the remaining 124,000 acres of timberland, the State of Tennessee has a proposal to acquire that as well. For an overview of that proposal as well as a capitalistic view of government ownership of land, go to "How Much Land Should the Government Own" by conservative Henry Lamb. For a view of the Governor's perspective on this deal and for an insight into the interactions of TIMOs, NGOs, government and industry, click here.

There are clearly forces at play that will increase government ownership of forestland at the expense of commercial timberland as industry continues to dispose of its land. Good or bad? I guess it depends on whether you are a communist (socialist?) or a capitalist! Either way, it appears that there is public support for increased ownership of public land and debate on the scope of that would be a good thing.

From my perspective (and I'm the Blogger!), consolidation of public ownership (acquiring inholdings from willing sellers), acquiring easements for hunting/public access/recreation, and protecting truly unique areas are examples of where government ownership should be encouraged. But I have to oppose the insatiable appetite of those that feel government should acquire everything on the market. And there are clearly many in that camp. Where do you sit? Why?--Brian


  1. I am in favor of the Federal government divesting their timberlands, either by selling to the highest bidder or by turning over ownership to the states.

  2. Eric,
    I appreciate your view. Care to expand on it a little bit with respect to "Why"? What do you think would change if the Federal government divested of all of its landholdings?

  3. Brian,
    First, the federal ownership of timberland isn't going anywhere - unfortunately.
    If federal timberland was given to the states, then the states could decide on the appropriate land uses. And the citizens could exercise their opinions through voting. Do the citizens of the state of Oregon currently have a large say in how federal lands in Oregon are managed?
    If federal timberland was sold to the highest bidder (and assuming reasonable restrictions associated with the sale) then we could reasonably expect TIMO's and timber REIT's to pursue the "best" timberlands and the conservation groups would pursue lands with important "special uses". And some properties would likely generate little to no interest from either group.
    In this case, the federal gov't would have a large chunk of money (which would probably be allocated poorly) and the private firms would do what they do best.

  4. Brian,

    I think the 124,000 acres mentioned in the article you reference is not owned by Bowater, but by other private owners, including some TIMO land.