Great Lakes conservation agencies adapt to increasingly absent landowners


Great Lakes landowners increasingly don’t live on the land they own, making it difficult for conservation officials to reach them and teach them.

Foresters and conservation folks say it’s more about who cares than who’s there, but recent research shows that caring isn’t always enough.

Absentee landowners include farmers and ranchers who rent their land to others, and people who buy it to play on or as an investment. About 42 percent of farmland in the U.S. is absentee owned, according to Agren, an agricultural and environmental consulting firm in Iowa. Those numbers are higher in the Great Lakes. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture).

Great Lakes Absentee Farm Owners

Great Lakes State

Percent of farm landowners who are absentee

Percent of farmland owned by absentee landowners

Michigan 50% 41%
Wisconsin 40% 34%
Minnesota 49% 44%
Indiana 58% 55%
Illinois 58% 64%
Ohio 53% 52%
Pennsylvania  44% 37%
New York 44% 33%
The absent owners do not usually get conservation information from state agencies and forestry officials, according to a recent study  of Michigan, New York and Wisconsin, published in the December 2011 edition of Society and Natural Resources journal.


“The problem is people that don’t live near their land may not be knowledgeable with the local natural resource agency,” said Peggy Petrzelka, a sociology professor at Utah State University and lead author of the study by the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

The absentee landowners demonstrated high environmental concern, especially those who used the land for recreation. When asked if conservation was important on their land, 88 percent yes to soil, 56 percent said yes to wildlife and 66 percent said yes to water.

But only 16 percent said they were enrolled in a state or federal conservation program. Owners have to want to conserve their land or outreach is meaningless, said Eric Roers, forester with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Forest and farm landowners expressed a desire to manage their land, but reaching them is increasingly difficult. Photo: inercia (Flickr)

“For us it’s a matter of who’s interested and who’s not — regardless of where they live,” Roers said. “I make appointments all the time with people from Chicago or Minnesota who want to manage their land effectively.”

Wisconsin encourages land stewardship by absentee landowners, Roer said.

“We have a managed forest law, which is a voluntary program and once landowners enter it, there’s forestry work they have to do,” Roer said. “And in return they get a tax benefit.”

Landowners that draft a 25-year land management plan get a tax break.

But Petrzelka isn’t convinced it’s as simple as those who care and those who don’t.

“I’m not sure I agree with that, we see in some surveys people interested in conservation but that don’t know where to get information,” Petrzelka said. “Some want to be engaged but don’t know where to turn.”

And even if they do find agencies to help, sometimes it’s not enough, said Jamie Ridgely, vice president of Agren, which was involved in Petrzelka’s study.

“Even if absentee landowners get the information they need, there are still barriers to conservation,” Ridgely said. “It takes time and relationship building and state field offices are not in a position to provide that … they have enough people walking through their door every day.”

That’s where private organizations can step in.

“We have a quarterly magazine and a monthly newsletter that goes out to all of our members,” said Bill Botti, executive director of the Michigan Forest Association. “We have members in Hawaii … Alaska … Arizona.”

The association helps private landowners manage their land. While Botti wasn’t sure how many of their 500 or so members were absentee, he said they have members from all across the country.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a landowner from Detroit that owns the land or someone from Hawaii,” Botti said. “They face the same challenges.”

Botti said most members are connected to a forester, and, for the absentee owners, the forester will sometimes check in on the land and help with tree management decisions.

The study’s next step is to identify ways for agencies to reach and work with the absent owners, as one-size-fits-all communication won’t work anymore, Petrzelka said.

Taking conservation initiatives can prove difficult even for owners who live on their land.

“Last Memorial Day we had a lot of bad storms and a lot of trees went down,” Botti said. “I’m still getting calls from people who live locally who just went to see their woods and they say, ‘Oh my God, I have trees down all over the place!’”

4 thoughts on “Great Lakes conservation agencies adapt to increasingly absent landowners

  1. Harold, I’d have to agree with you. In Michigan, I see harvests that I could only classify as high grades, seven year rotations of hardwoods, and a new technique which isn’t a clearcut because a few trees are left here and there (Seed tree? Shelterwood – of sugar maple? Optimum stand density? 0 to 20 sq. ft. basal area?) I call it a savannah-scrap harvest. The county forester repeats the same thing we were taught in forestry class in the 70’s – timber harvesting creates a healthy forest.

    Unfortunately, “healthy” forest means healthy for wood production and deer. It doesn’t refer to the overall health of the forest ecosystem.

    Wood production and a healthy forest ecosystem could be synonymous, but it would require a complete overhaul of our thinking and actions concerning forest management. And from what I see here in Michigan where we institue “No Tree Left Behind” for the “good” of the forest, that’s never going to happen.

  2. Hey Robert, I could easily call for you to get some education, too, but instead of trying to make a snide remark I’ll try to simply to explain where I’m coming from relative to my post above.

    I’ve witnessed plenty of forestry practices across the country–the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly. I’ve worked with state foresters in New Hampshire, and I’ve toured redwood and other harvests in California and the northwest–and a few places in between. I’ve seen plenty of forestry practices throughout Michigan, from the far reaches of the U.P. to southeast Michigan. I’ve got some formal education in forestry and biology to boot.

    My snippet of a post was primarily in response to the closing paragraph in the article, where someone was complaining about downed trees lying on the ground. Too many landowners and managers go for the “park” type of look, where everything is clean and neat. That certainly doesn’t emulate a natural forest, and it is certainly not good for wildlife.

    One of the biggest arguments for cutting trees from a forest is one that you used: that it is good for wildlife. Well, that is like a half-truth. Of course, a disturbed early-successional woods does favor a particular set of wildlife species, but an undisturbed old growth forest supports wildlife, too. And since ancient forests have become a rarity, those species are much more rare as well. I believe we need to restore the full range of native wildlife to our landscape by preserving a full range of habitats. A uniform approach to “management” tends to homogenize habitat and lessens wildlife diversity.

    Underlying my post, however, is a growing frustration with the backwards forestry practices which are becoming more prevalent in Michigan. We are presently seeing the greatest amount of clearcut activity since the 1800s. Even if you simply go to Google Earth–or any online aerial photography site–you can see vast swaths of land which have been clearcut. The state and federal lands around the Huron-Manistee National Forest are most telling. On state lands near Oscoda, square 10-acre clearcuts pockmark the forest, like a giant checkerboard. This practice terribly fragments the forest habitat and has a profoundly negative impact on forest-dwelling birds. (And they don’t benefit Kirtland’s Warblers, which do require a certain amount of clearcutting.)

    We think we have come a long ways from the robber-baron days of the 1800s, but in reality, we’re not that much better off. We just know how to disguise the impacts better, by leaving rows of trees along highways. Perhaps the greatest waste of our forest resources is the clearcutting of our forests to supply wood-burning electrical generation plants. We’re downgrading our forests to such an extent, that it’s costing us high-grade lumber and jobs, while devastating our forest landscapes.

    You see, I have much less of a problem with private landowners managing their woodlots. That’s where some of the better forest management practices are taking place. But we still need more diversity.

  3. Hey Harold, maybe you should get some of the education that they are talking about in the article.

    Regeneration of woodlands is the best way to continue to provide:
    1)Wood for human use. (you don’t live in a sod house, do you?)
    2)Undergrowth regeneration which provides habitat for animals and birds.

    If you lived within a managed woodlands, you would be able to see what I’m talking about. A good example would be that when a woods has had some harvesting done, some of the first things that regenerate are wild raspberries and blackberries, which provide food, hiding spots and nesting areas.

    Some landowners will also request that some food bearing trees that are important to birds and animals, (examples would be beech, oak, etc), be saved to continue to provide food sources as well as re-seed the area.

    Even Conservancy groups will manage some of their woodlots, understanding the benefits.

    Managing woodlands does not always bean the removal of dead and downed trees. Some landowners will request that dead or hollow trees NOT be removed, because they know some animals require them in order to survive.

    Proper management ensures there will be forests for the future generations. The biggest threat to the health of woodlands, in my opinion, is pollution and urban sprawl.

  4. It seems that most people who advocate for “managing” woods don’t really appreciate what constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem. Dead and downed trees are vital for wildlife and for soil regeneration. From what I’ve seen, Mother Nature does the best job at “managing” forests–not someone just trying to make a buck off of them.

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