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Family-owned forest land may soon change hands

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2016 may turn out to be a big year for real estate. In this case, it’s forests that are for sale. Over a third of U.S. forest land is owned by private families. And many of those owners are now senior citizens, suggesting that their land may soon change hands.

About 30 miles northwest of Portland, Oregon, Scott Russell owns several hundred acres of forest.

“I think of this farm as a bank account, that’s for sure,” says Russell.

Farming their forest has supported the Russells financially as they raised two sons. Scott Russell is 69 now, and he’s thinking about what happens to his biggest asset after he’s gone.

“This tree farm has not been something that’s cranked out a whole lot of cash. But it will in the future,” he said.

The future of the family forest is a topic of dinner conversation in many homes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 40 percent of private forest owners in the US are 65 or older.

“That’s driving this huge transition in forest ownership,” said Ben Hayes, a research fellow with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. “Particularly with families where the land has been in the family for multiple generations, they’re land-rich but cash-poor. So, if this is their most valuable asset, it creates challenges around estate planning and passing it on to the next generation.”

If the next generation is desperate for cash, the family forest is often sold to industrial players, who clear-cut the trees and sell the timber for export.

Fortunately, Scott Russell’s kids have good jobs and don’t need the money.

“Our kids have already got the message that there’s a difference between inherited money and money you earn. You don’t buy Corvettes with inherited money,” said Russell.

He walks a fine-line in trying to get his sons interested in the family business.

“I don’t get so passionate about the tree farm that I turn it into an albatross for my kids,” said Russell.

So far, his sons are on board. But just in case, Russell is enlisting support from his grand kids by building small cabins around the property.

“The idea is, if the kids decide to sell, then the grand-kids are going to be, ‘Oh, we built that with grandpa, you can’t sell that piece,'” said Russell.

How’s that for leveraging an emotional investment to protect a physical asset?

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