At some point, you’re probably going to face some big decisions about the future of your land. When you do, will you know your options? Our ongoing study looks at this question for landowners in the NYC Watershed.
You’ve got mail! Did you receive a survey in the mail from the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC) asking you what you know about different conservation options for your forestland? If so, you were one of the lucky randomly selected landowners we asked to help us with our ongoing study of forest ownership in the New York City (NYC) Watershed.
UMass-Amherst’s Family Forest Research Center developed a survey tool - called the Conservation Awareness Index (CAI) – to estimate landowner preparedness to make informed conservation decisions about their land when big decisions arise related to harvesting timber, paying taxes, and planning for the long term future of the land after the landowner passes away. Responses to the survey can be used to represent the likelihood that landowners’ forests will stay as forests over time, instead of being converted into some non-forested use, like development.
One reason it’s important to keep forests as forests is clean water. Heavily forested watersheds produce the best quality water, which you can read about in a blog called Woods Wash Water, using the NYC Watershed as an example. With over half of all U.S. forests being privately-owned (that’s 441 million acres!), the decisions you and other landowners make about the future of your land will impact what forest benefits everyone can continue to depend on – like clean water.
However, it can be difficult for family forest owners to keep their land intact. As you might imagine, death and taxes play a role. For example, New York State has some of the highest property taxes in the U.S. and when other big financial needs arise – like paying for medical treatment or college tuition – subdividing and selling some of your land can be a critical way to stay afloat. Other big decisions may pop up and catch you by surprise, such as being offered money for your timber without knowing how to make sure you get the results you want at a fair price, or having a death in the family that forces relatives to figure out what to do with the property.
The idea is that the more landowners know about programs or tools that can help to reduce property taxes, generate income from the forest, or conserve forests for generations to come, the more likely that forest will remain and continue to provide ecosystem services like water purification, flood regulation, food, wood, fiber, fuel, wildlife habitat, and recreation. Our study uses the CAI to better understand what landowners in our area know about their options in order to better support landowner decision-making that helps keep forests as forests.
What are the components of the CAI?
The tool has four subject areas that represent conservation decisions that many landowners will likely face, including property tax reduction programs, conservation easements, timber harvesting, and estate planning. For each subject area, landowners are asked four types of questions that get at their level of familiarity, knowledge, experience, and awareness of professionals related to that subject.
Timber harvesting can be used to generate income to offset property taxes and re-invest in your woodlot through trail, timber stand, or wildlife habitat improvements.
What have previous CAI studies shown?
Van Fleet et al. (2012) - the team that developed the CAI - found that random landowners in Massachusetts knew the least about estate planning and conservation easements. Landowners knew the most about timber harvesting and property tax reduction programs. CAI scores were related to distance from land, education level, ownership size, and location.
Schnur et al. (2013) found that New York forest landowners knew less about conservation options for their land than Massachusetts landowners. Random landowners knew the least about New York’s tax reduction program (the Forest Tax Law Program, aka 480-a) and conservation easements.
Kittredge et al. (2015) surveyed forest landowners in Massachusetts across a range of rural to urban communities. They found that CAI scores differed by town, suggesting hotspots of awareness. Towns with higher CAI scores were associated with greater conservation social capital and relative wealth. Conservation social capital means having access to informed peers and professionals through groups/programs like WAC, Catskill Forest Association, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), CCE’s Master Forest Owner Program, Women Owning Woodlands, and the Women and Their Woods Retreat.
How is WAC using the CAI?
In the winter of 2020, the WAC Forestry Program sent out its second CAI survey to 3000 randomly selected landowners in the NYC Watershed with at least 10 forest acres. At the time of this writing (April 2020), we’ve gotten about 780 completed surveys back. Study findings will help us improve our programs that promote 480-a enrolments and updates, conservation easements, and forest management activities (e.g., timber harvests and timber stand improvements). Survey responses will help us evaluate our reach with MyWoodlot.com and improve our landowner outreach and education efforts.
It took our team four days to stuff 3000 CAI surveys into envelopes two times over. To pass the time, we told stories, watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and listened to music from the Shetland Folk Festival.
It took a Land Rover to deliver this important load to the post office.
If you want to learn more about the CAI’s four subject areas and how they relate to your property, check out MyWoodlot.com, where we have helpful resources related to property tax reduction programs, conservation easements, timber harvesting, and estate planning. Lastly, if you completed a 2020 CAI survey and would like to know how you did, contact me at