Landowners in Emanuel County who grow timber expect that, with time, those trees will be cut, the logs sold, processed, and used for building, paper products or energy. In 1936, there were 21.4 million acres of forestland in Georgia and, in 2004, 24.8 million acres. To borrow a phrase from the Georgia Forestry Association, “Trees are Georgia’s Renewal Resource.”
Trees filter water, trap sediment, halt erosion and cool the water for fish living in our creeks and rivers. A ton of wood in the forest removes 1.47 tons of carbon dioxide and replaces it with 1.07 tons of oxygen. In one year, more than two million Georgians participate in wildlife-related activities and contribute $1.6 billion to Georgia’s economy. Think cleaner air, cleaner water and economic benefit when you recall that approximately 69% of Emanuel County is covered by forests.
To practice forest stewardship is to recognize, cultivate and enhance the value of our forests above and beyond the value of timber. A landowner whose goal is to raise longleaf pine and to restore its natural habitat will not disturb the hole that is home to an endangered gopher tortoise. Landowners who grow timber may choose to manage their land with attention to water quality by giving careful attention to streamside management zones or for wildlife and recreation by creating permanent openings among the trees. The Forest Stewardship Program, sponsored by the Georgia Forestry Commission, is designed to support private landowners in planning for the multiple values and benefits of their property.
The term “sustainable forestry” was first used formally at a United Nations conference in Brazil in 1992. As an industry standard, the key principles of sustainable forestry include the protection of water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity, prompt reforestation, and prudent management strategies, i.e. fire, thinning and sometime chemicals to maintain forest health. Harvesting with minimal impact on the environment and continued improvement in wood utilization are also features of sustainable forestry. Sustainable forestry is essentially thoughtful stewardship of the land and related resources.
In January of 2011, a study from the Warnell School of Forestry at the University of Georgia reported that the economic value of the ecological benefit of Georgia’s 22 million acres of privately owned forests was $37.6 billion. That study considered six environmental services and calculated the value of the land that provided those services. The six environmental services evaluated were gas and climate regulation, water regulation and supply, soil formation, pollination, habitat/refugia and aesthetic value.
Landowners interested in a balance between their need for economic benefit and an interest in the forest ecosystem may establish a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a legally binding contract between a landowner and a government agency or a land trust organization. Timber management, farming, fishing and hunting or maintaining an existing residence are not affected. However, subdivisions, large parking lots, billboards and surface mining are prohibited. Property enrolled in a conservation easement may be sold or passed to ones heirs, but the easement applies to all future owners. Both the U.S. Congress and the Georgia General Assembly have provided significant tax incentives to landowners who enter into conservation easements.
That forest ecosystems are assets with natural, economic and social value should encourage thoughtful stewardship of our forests. Growing trees for timber, an appreciation for the ecosystem where trees flourish and stewardship of the land call for intelligent, thoughtful decisions. The decisions thoughtful landowners make will never be simple either/or decisions, but decisions that seek balance.
Suella McCrimmon retired as a member of the mathematics faculty at East Georgia College in 2007 and since that time have been a forestry student at Southeastern Technical College in Swainsboro.