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A forest's fringe benefits

A number of public and private partnerships work to keep forests as forests—even if no trees are harvested

hIn Southeast Georgia, the Warnell family’s lands stretch along the Canoochee River, unfolding into thousands of acres of planted and natural pine stands..

But ask Fred Warnell about one of his favorite areas, and he’ll point to a section of sand hills, wire grass and the river bottoms.

Is it good for timber? No. But it sure is nice to look at.

“There’s nothing more pretty to me than these sand ridges and these turkey oaks. And in the fall, their flaming reds and golds. There’s nothing you can really do with it than enjoy it,” says Warnell (BSFR ’71), who works with his three siblings to manage the family’s 8,700acres in Bryan County. 

Timber is the family’s bread and butter, but not all their land is suitable for growing trees. It’s a simple fact that many landowners encounter at some point: As important as working forests are, not all landscapes are ideal for producing timber. 

Warnell learned this on his own land after some time spent planting sand pine and other seedlings. Some parts of the tract sustained longleaf, but that wouldn’t work in other parts of the property.

Then, Warnell realized the land held another resource: indigo snakes and gopher tortoises.

This opened the door to programs that helped the family make the most out of their land when commercial timber wasn’t an option. Using a combination of conservation easements, the family found a way to maintain the land’s natural state, ease their financial burden and ensure it stays natural for the future.

“Sometimes, your land is just too poor to produce. That’s just the way nature is. And everything that’s growing above the soil is related to the soil. If you’ve got some very low site-quality land, you can’t expect to do miracles with it,” adds Warnell. “Now, people can always go back, 100 years from now, and say, ‘You know, Fred Warnell and his family decided to preserve certain things for the betterment of mankind.’”



But just like trying on a pair of jeans, no one plan for your land is going to be the right fit.

“A lot of people get thrust into the ownership and management, whether they like it or not, because of generational transfer—they have to start figuring it out,” says Scott Jones (BSFR ’95), CEO of Forest Landowners Association. “With private landowners, they all have something different with how they want to manage their land. So, one thing we try to do is put options in front of landowners. … You have to present a buffet of options because every landowner is different.”

No matter how you use your land, there are costs associated with it. Offsetting these costs is important because it incentivizes keeping forests intact. Options range, and include programs administered by federal or state agencies, or nonprofits such as land trusts. 

Landowners such as Warnell, with land management experience and contacts in the field, might know where to turn when looking for programs. 

But what if you’ve inherited your land and don’t know where to start?



That’s the case with Herbert Hodges. He manages about 600 acres of timberland in Emanuel County that he shares with his siblings. The land has been in his family since 1883, and over the generations has produced turpentine, tobacco, corn and soybeans.

Hodges considered farming the land after he retired from the military, but the start-up expenses were too high to make it viable. Timber, he realized, was the way to go—but only after discovering federal cost-sharing programs that could help him get his foot in the door.

“We knew we wanted to keep the land in the family, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do with it,” says Hodges. “Taxes were continually going up, and we wanted to make the land productive—if our parents were able to keep it all those years, we should be able to make it produce something.”

He began doing some research, which led him to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. It’s been about a decade since he first started planting longleaf through the program, and the financial and technical assistance has assisted in restoring longleaf pine in its historic range along with other iconic understory species. Through the programs, he has planted more than 400 acres of longleaf, installed water bars to prevent soil erosion, installed stream crossings to prevent stream pollution and installed firebreaks to conduct prescribed burns. The National Wildlife Federation is now partnering with Hodges to showcase his farm as a model for fellow landowners interested in similar practices. 

More than a decade ago, a good portion of the property was volunteer pines and scrub oaks. But now it’s a sustainable tree farm with an emerging pine ecosystem. The longleaf now growing on Hodges’ property also helps him feel connected to his ancestors. Before his parents turned to farming, his father harvested turpentine. Hodges suspects some of the volunteer seedlings were descendants of his parent’s and grandparents’ trees. And that’s a nice connection to have, he says.

Mike Tinkey also finds a connection to his ancestors through his land. And, like Hodges, he’s also looking for resources to buttress commercial timber operations.

Tinkey’s grandfather, George Peake, was a pecan farmer who tended about 5,000 acres of pecan groves prior to World War II. After the war he diversified into commercial timber and brought his son, George Peake Jr., into the business. George Peake Jr., also an accomplished forester, kept his finger on the pulse of the forests into his 90s.

“We convinced our father to allow his three sons to form Tinkey Timberlands and continue the legacy of actively managing the land,” says Tinkey, noting his father’s philosophy was to have forestland in several locations to reduce the risk of pests or storm damage. “He was a good steward of the land and a good steward of replanting the land. So we’re just trying to, in some way, continue the legacy of our grandfather and father and leave it better than we found it. And also create income for our families.”

After leaving home for their own careers, now Tinkey and his brothers are playing catch-up. They want to learn as much as they can to continue the forestry legacy while carving out a new path for future generations.

For example, all their properties have hunting leases. They also incorporate conservation easements and are looking into the emerging field of carbon credits.

But, what else? 

Recreation is one option, says Tinkey, who has experience in the hospitality industry. His children like to camp, so perhaps “glamping”—high-end campsites—are in the cards? One property might lend itself to a partnership with a nearby organic farm. Another might involve credits for water quality and conservation, another program in the works through the Georgia Forestry Foundation.

“Also, we’re trying to work with smaller sawmills where they may do some specialty products, like large beams from old timber, so we can get good use of the timber,” adds Tinkey, who attended Warnell’s Forestry for Non-Foresters class last fall. “We’re just trying to soak it up. We’re new, and we have a long way to go to get up to speed. So, we’re just working hard to explore all the resources.”



Perhaps the most vexing of all the potential programs for landowners is carbon credits. While programs exist in Europe, the United States has yet to come to a consensus on how to measure carbon and define a forest’s benefits. 

Until that’s pinned down, says Jones, conservation easements are the most common route for a landowner when a property isn’t suitable for commercial forestry. But the process can be long and isn’t the right fit for every piece of land, says Andrew Schock, conservation acquisition director for The Conservation Fund. Schock works to protect habitat in Georgia and Alabama.

“It all depends on your objective. And if you’re concerned with protecting the land and its legacy, a conservation easement is the way to go,” he says. “It’s a complicated process and it takes a while, but it’s a way to permanently protect your land, particularly if it’s in a place like wetlands, where you’re not interested in harvesting trees.”

If a conservation easement isn’t the right fit, landowners can go back to the menu of options to see what fits their appetite. 

A hunting or fishing lease is one way to provide regular income to help offset taxes. Also, says Warnell tax expert Yanshu Li, there are a variety of tax code changes that landowners may not know about but can benefit their bottom line.

“Taxes remain one of the top concerns among private forest landowners,” says Li. She recently published a guide to help navigate federal tax changes, and landowners can also look for relief in her 2020 guide to property tax incentives published through the UGA Center for Forest Business. 

There are also federal programs that encourage conservation or reforestation through cost-sharing agreements, land purchases or specific management plans. For example, the Conservation Stewardship Program Hodges used to plant longleaf on his property met guidelines specified by NRCS. Other federal programs focus on conservation of lands with at-risk species.

State-level programs can include conservation easements with public or private partners. For example, Warnell worked with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources to place another tract of land into a wildlife management area. Now, land where he enjoys hunting can also be enjoyed by the public.

The latest player to the field? Municipalities, which are part of an effort led by Robert Farris (BSFR ’85) to create incentives based on a parcel’s contributions to water quality.

Farris is the forest ecosystem services program manager for the Georgia Forestry Foundation and recently hosted an online program with hundreds of representatives from municipal water authorities, state and local governments and nonprofits focused on creating benefits for landowners that contribute to watersheds. Because forests reduce the cost of treating water, the idea is to share that cost savings with forest landowners.

“Everybody considers the clean air and clean water forests provide to be a free asset,” says Farris. “But we’re projecting the loss of millions of acres of forestland across the South by 2060. We’re looking at ways for how we can help landowners keep their lands as forests—and to do that, you really need to go beyond harvesting wood products.”

There are several options already in the works, adds Farris, and many partners in Georgia that are interested in spreading these programs to more places. One example is in Columbus, Georgia, where Warnell researchers have mapped the watershed feeding into the city’s water supply, highlighting specific parcels that can have a tremendous effect on water quality.

“I think it’s just a matter of time for folks to start to recognize those values,” says Farris. “At the end of the day, the Georgia Forestry Foundation wants to create incentives for landowners to conserve and manage land. It’s a ways off, but I’m very impressed with the amount of time and effort that different organizations have been doing in this area now.”



In the end, what’s right for any piece of land is between the owner and the dirt that’s on it. For Warnell, that means conserving land for species habitat—and knowing future generations can enjoy it too. For Hodges, that means bringing his land back to its longleaf roots through federal programs that encourage these practices. And for Tinkey, that means exploring options in both the public and private sector that align with the uses of his family’s varied properties.

It’s a balancing act. 

“I think the majority of the land would be used for whatever the best practices are today for timber growing and replenishment. But we have some property that we would like to be used and maintained more in its natural state,” he says. 

For example, one property was planted through a World War II-era program to promote reforestation; it now has old-growth trees and a beaver pond. Another has hardwoods as well as old farm terraces that have created a natural amphitheater.

Maybe that could lead to a new use? 

“It’s pure exploratory,” says Tinkey. “I’m just trying to learn it and avoid a lot of mistakes.”

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