The Family Forest Carbon Program, developed by the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, was created to help America’s family forest owners manage their forestlands for the long-term in order to address climate change, improve the health of their woods and secure additional income. Family forest owners with properties as small as 30 wooded acres are eligible to enroll in the program, which offers a number of benefits. Included in these benefits is the opportunity to work with a forestry professional to create a forest management plan that is tailored to the forest owner’s goals.
Meet Sarah Hall-Bagdonas, Senior Forestry Manager of the Family Forest Carbon Program
Just like there are many benefits for landowners who enroll in the Family Forest Carbon Program, there are various perks that come with working with a forestry professional through the program. As a summer intern – who is new to the Family Forest Carbon Program – I wanted to learn more about these perks and the ways forestry professionals work with landowners. Fortunately, I was able to speak with Sarah Hall-Bagdonas, the Senior Forestry Manager at the American Forest Foundation, to get all of my questions answered.
Sarah has been working with the American Forest Foundation and the Family Forest Carbon Program since April of 2021. She began her journey with the program as a Landowner Assistance Manager, traveling up to 1,000 miles per week to work with family forest owners throughout Pennsylvania. Now, Sarah manages the program’s staff foresters, but still gets to conduct forest visits and meet with landowners regularly.
Benefit #1: Work with the forester of your choice
When I sat down to chat with Sarah she explained how the Family Forest Carbon Program connects landowners with forestry professionals. When a landowner enrolls in the program they have the opportunity to work with one of the Family Forest Carbon Program staff foresters or a consulting forester. Consulting foresters are private foresters that are contracted through the program, or they can be the landowner’s existing forester. “That’s a really important piece of our program,” said Sarah. “If a landowner has a forester, we want to make sure that we are fostering that relationship.”
It is important to build the relationship between forestry professionals and landowners because they work closely with one another for years. One of the biggest advantages of having a forestry professional through the Family Forest Carbon Program is that they are a connection and resource throughout the length of the 20-year contract. “The forester is available to walk the land with landowners during the first forest visit, discuss the program, and anything they have questions about,” said Sarah. These questions can range from general inquiries about the land to specific questions about invasive species. “Our foresters are really experts in all of these things. So it is sort of a free service to landowners to help them be better educated about sustainable forestry and how to better manage their forests for the future.”
Benefit #2: Be as involved–or hands off–as you’d like
To start, the forestry professionals will conduct a site visit on the landowner’s property. “The visit can be as short or as long as the landowner likes. “We can have short conversations before and after we go out into the field to collect our data, or they, the landowners, can join us throughout the whole visit.” Sarah mentioned that most landowners do choose this last option and walk their properties with the forestry professional. During the visit, the forestry professionals will provide technical assistance and explain more about the program: how healthy forests are produced, what co-benefits result from enrolling, such as improved water quality, invasive species control, and increased wildlife habitat, and much more.
Whether or not landowners have worked with foresters previously, have had a forest management plan or have made long-term goals for their lands, the Family Forest Carbon Program forestry professionals are available to guide landowners wherever they are in their stewardship journeys. “We are always catering our education, our visits, and especially our management plans to the landowner’s goals,” Sarah said. “They are getting a wealth of information about all the different issues and forest health topics during the visit.”
Benefit #3: Expert advice tailored to your land
Recently, Sarah was able to conduct a site visit on lands owned by a collective group of people in a hunt club. “Multiple ownerships can be very tricky. Usually with hunt clubs there are a lot of different people involved,” Sarah said. “It can be difficult to get them all on the same page about what their goals are.” Fortunately, many of the hunt club members were out in the field for the site visit to talk with Sarah about their land and the program. “We just went stand by stand and talked about what the issues were, what the history was, what they could possibly do to improve that land. It was really important to get them all together, have them out in the field, and be explaining all of those things to the whole group.” Regardless of properties being owned by multiple people, landowners are able to invite friends or neighbors on their forestry professional site visit to learn more about conservation and the Family Forest Carbon Program. “We are happy to have them join us,” said Sarah.
Throughout the day, the group rode around on ATVs and walked throughout the property. The members of the hunt club were able to provide insight and details on past harvests that had occurred on the land and Sarah was able to share her knowledge about forest management and educate the members on their woodlands. Although the morning started off dreary, Sarah mentioned that “it turned into a really great day of providing education to the members, specifically on their land. They were a really great group to work with and I had a great time.”
While every site visit differs, landowners can expect forestry professionals to be there to answer their questions, provide details about their forestlands and give more insight into the ways in which the Family Forest Carbon Program can lead to improved forest health. No matter what goals a landowner has for their property, the forestry professional is there to support the landowner throughout their journey in achieving those goals.
Benefit #4: A custom forest management plan
Following a site visit, these goals are outlined in a forest management plan that the Family Forest Carbon Program forestry professionals help write, done in consultation with the landowner. Forest management plans are guides that help landowners better steward their forestlands. Although they do not have to be followed to a “T”, the more closely the plans are followed, the healthier woodlands can be.
Due to a lack of resources and funds that are necessary to obtain a forest management plan, most landowners have never had one. However, by enrolling in the Family Forest Carbon Program landowners get a free forest management plan. In fact, landowners essentially get two free plans, since they need to get updated every 10 years. These plans can be quite simple or more detailed depending on what a landowner is looking for. “We believe it is important for landowners to have a forest management plan to help guide their management. So we have committed to making sure every landowner has a forest management plan and we give them options of how much detail they want in that plan,” Sarah explained.
The plan includes information such as the size and location of forestland parcels and then breaks down the parcels into smaller management units called stands. The forestry professional will outline what the current stand conditions are and what specific recommended practices can be taken by landowners to improve the stand. “These plans break management into smaller pieces and landowners can kind of manage them at different times throughout the length of the plan,” Sarah said. Not only do the plans help landowners over the course of their 10-year lifespans, but much farther into the future. “Forest management plans are a great legacy tool for heirs or the next owners to understand what the previous landowner’s goals were, what the conditions were 10, 20, 40 years ago, and what the plan was to improve that forest health.”
Learn more: Three ways to use a forest management plan.
Benefit #5: A lifelong friend and resource
And beyond the technical assistance, there are other benefits such as lifelong friendships and memories that come out of the working relationships of forestry professionals and landowners. “This is exactly why I took this job,” Sarah said. Over the years, Sarah has met many fascinating people while working in the field of forestry. “When you spend 2, 4, 6, 7 hours in the woods with someone sweating and getting covered in ticks, you get pretty personal.” But it’s not just the friendships that come out of the Family Forest Carbon Program–it’s the impact, too. “To help a landowner on their land, individually, which then contributes to a larger group of individuals that is helping to combat climate change…it’s just a very cool program in that way.”
The Family Forest Carbon Program–and forestry professionals–offers a number of benefits to landowners who are looking to improve the health of their forests and address climate change. If you are looking to steward your forestlands, work with a team of experienced and dedicated forestry professionals and make an impact while earning income, consider enrolling today. Although I have recently been introduced to the Family Forest Carbon Program, I also agree with Sarah that it is a very cool program. If all of my questions as an intern were answered by one of the program’s forestry professionals, just imagine how many of your questions will be answered when you enroll! For more information, please visit our website or contact us.
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