Forest industries in the eastern United States rely heavily on privately owned family forests to supply their mills. An estimated 82% of all timber harvests in the eastern U.S., or 12.7 billion board feet, were removed from private lands in 2022.
Private forests can be categorized into three groups based on ownership type: corporate (private corporate), family, and other private. Corporate forest owners are part of the forest products sector and include timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts (Butler and Wear 2013). Non-corporate or non-industrial private forest owners are more commonly labeled family forest owners (FFOs) (Butler and Leatherberry 2004). FFOs include families, individuals, trusts, estates, family partnerships, and other unincorporated groups or individuals that own at least one acre of forest land that is at least 10% stocked. West Virginia FFOs are the focal point of this study and own more than half (52%) of the timberland in the state (WV State Forest Action Plan 2020).
FFOs face important land management decisions that have long-term impacts on their properties. Some of these decisions include whether to harvest timber, lease their property, or sell part or all their property for added income (Ma et al. 2011). When an FFO decides to harvest timber, other parties become involved in the future conditions of the property. The timber sale may include loggers, consulting foresters, procurement foresters, state foresters, and others (Rickenbach 2018, Hoover et al. 2002, Bowers and Punches 2007, Grotta 2014). All these parties have a role to play in the success of the sale and the future of that land.
An example of the complexity of a timber transaction in West Virginia is illustrated in Figure 1 (McGill et al. 2004, McGill et al. 2006, Maltempie 2017). The figure lays out the process of a four-party timber transaction and is a visual example of the situations that might arise during these complex transactions.
This four-party scenario in Figure 1 includes the FFO (landowner), a professional forester, a logging company, and the West Virginia Division of Forestry (WVDOF). The first phase is conceptualization where some condition (medical bills, tuition, new roof, etc.) or stimulus (e.g., a “knock at the door”) causes the FFO to decide to sell their timber. The next phase is timber sale preparation where contact is made with a professional forester who will help the FFO plan and start the sale by writing up a sale prospectus or a sale contract. Once the timber is sold, in this case to the logger, the West Virginia Department of Forestry (WVDOF) must be notified of the planned harvest within three days of starting the timbering operations.
There are many different scenarios and parties that may be involved in timber transactions. Each timber transaction is distinct and unique and there are often no prior certainties about the “success” of the transaction.
Measuring customer satisfaction is an important part of improving quality of work and retaining customers for future business transactions. In the case of the forest products industry, customer satisfaction experienced during timber transactions not only involves a simple exchange of money for logs but may involve perceptions and emotions involved with significant logistical operations on private properties, properties owned by people who are often uninformed or misinformed about the complexities of these transactions (Cengiz 2010).
Issues related to the hiring of a forester, the landowner’s previous knowledge of what occurs during a harvest, and the trust of the parties that are involved in the harvest can all impact the outcome of a harvest. Hiring a forester or being prepared for the sale could positively impact a timber sale, whereas not trusting the forester or the logging company might negatively impact the outcome of the timber sale (Maltempie 2017).
There are many organizational, governmental, and agency-produced information bulletins meant to guide the landowner to successful timber transactions (e.g., Rickenbach 2018, Hoover et al. 2002, Bowers and Punches 2007, Grotta 2014). Despite these efforts, unsatisfactory timber sales still occur. Research on landowner satisfaction with timber transactions is limited but substantiate the claim that most landowners are not against future sales, although some have had bad experiences (Karha 2004, Maltempie 2017).
A list of FFOs who recently harvested timber from their properties was obtained from the West Virginia Logging Operations Notification Inspection and Enforcement system (LONIE). The system is maintained by the West Virginia University Appalachian Hardwoods Center and the West Virginia Division of Forestry (Spong 2013, WVDOF 2022). LONIE was developed as a tool for the WVDOF to comply with the WV Logging Sediment Control Act (LSCA) by creating a registry of logging operations and inspection findings. Logging operators are required to submit a notification on LONIE within three days of beginning a harvest. The LONIE database includes data such as harvesting location, parties involved, logger’s license number, client contact information, and when and where the harvest would occur (Spong 2013).
The questionnaire also included a set of open-ended questions to get more details on why respondents were satisfied or dissatisfied with the transaction. Open-ended questions were used in the questionnaire to elicit responses from FFOs that may have otherwise not been revealed within the more quantitative portion of the questionnaire.
In total, FFOs completed 257 questionnaires. The majority of responding FFOs (61%) described this as their first harvest. Eighty percent (80%) of the respondents were male. The largest age group was 65–74 (35%) and in the largest education category, 35% had completed high school. Forty-eight percent (48%) lived on their property. Seventy-six percent (76%) did not lease any part of their property.
Guidance Prior to the Sale
Five themed categories resulted from 125 FFOs (48%) answering the question, “Prior to deciding to sell timber, did you receive guidance or information on the best way to harvest timber? If yes, from where?” These five themes included foresters (39%), organizations (21%), other timber professionals (15%), family and friends (15%), and personal knowledge and research (11%) (Table 1). In the largest category, labeled forester, most respondents listed a specific forester or just the job title, “forester” (39%). There was no attempt in the questionnaire to guide responding landowners to detail the type of forester, whether governmental “county” forester, procurement forester, or consulting forester. The majority in this subcategory (65%) used general terms for forester like “independent,” “consulting,” “professional,” “my forester,” or just “forester.” Others used their foresters’ real names (14%), their organizations (12%), or both names and organizations (9%).
Twenty-one percent of the respondents listed guidance from governmental agencies (e.g., WV Division of Forestry, WV Department of Natural Resources) or private organizations (“the logging company,” “timber company,” etc.) (Table 2). Those who listed other timber professionals as their sources of guidance (15%) used terms like “timber agent,” “individual who had sold timber,” “NRCS forester,” and “person knowledgeable in timber sales.” Family and friends provided guidance and information to another 15% of respondents. Surprisingly, nearly a third (32%) of these landowners stated their friends and family associates had some forestry experience and some were foresters. Finally, one in ten respondents said they had prior knowledge or had researched their own information about the best way to sell timber.
Main Concerns During Decision to Sell
Nearly nine out of ten respondents (89%) answered the key question, “When you were deciding to sell timber, what were your main concerns?” Concerns were coded into three primary areas that involved: 1) condition of the property, 2) financial values, and 3) people involved (Table 2). A smaller “other” category comprised responses not closely related to any of the three primary categories and included the “no concerns” responses. Most were concerned with the condition of the property during or after the transaction (61%), while financial value (20%) and concerns about the people involved in the transaction (15%) were less frequently cited.
Just under half (47%) of those selecting “condition of property” as their main concern stated something about the “general condition” or residual stand characteristics, including aesthetics and best management practices (BMPs; Table 2). A closely related subcategory was made up of responses that explicitly stated “damage” as part of their response. Twenty-eight percent of those who were concerned about the condition of their property specified damage as a main concern. The remaining subcategories each accounted for less than 8% of the responses, but included concerns for the mess (trash and slash) that might be left, access to their properties (or lack thereof due to damaged roads), and other topics—for example, concern that the logger might not take out all stumps due to landowner’s interest in converting the forest to pasture.
Financial concerns were stated in 20% of the responses. Three-quarters (76%) of the respondents listing this concern were simply interested in getting the best financial deal from their sale of timber. General market conditions and marketing methods were put forward as concerns by 17% of these respondents. Costs for the transaction and taxes associated with the timber sale revenue were listed by 7%.
Best Things About the Timber Transaction
Apart from concerns related to their most recent timber transaction, respondents shared their impressions about the “best things” that had occurred in their timbering experiences. Eighty-four percent of the respondents answered this question, including 4% who claimed that there was nothing good about the transaction. On a more positive note, over half (58%) claimed either a financial (31%) or a forest productivity (27%) aspect as the best thing about their most recent transaction. The financial benefits were expressed in two ways. The first was simply “the money” (87%). The second had to do with the way the transaction was structured.
A few examples of these were “the company paid us in advance of the work,” “payments to me were correct, documented, and on time,” and “they gave me an estimate of what I would get and gave me part of the money and when that was gone I would get a check each week till the harvest was done.” The forest productivity category contained other sub-themes including improved woods (62%), wildlife habitat (15%), management planning (9%), a general improved condition of the property (8%), and forest and wildlife together (6%).
Financial and forest productivity themes were followed by statements appreciating the trust they had in their professionals—the “company,” foresters, and loggers—who were associated with the transactions (18%). Three smaller categories included: 1) an “other” category (8%) with respondents who were surprised or thankful that the operations were simply just finished or had been completed very rapidly, 2) an access category (7%) listed by landowners grateful to have improved access to their properties because of the logging operations, and 3) a land conversion category (6%) filled with claims about how new pastures or cleared land were great benefits of the transaction.
Worst Things About the Timber Transaction
As mentioned, only 4% of the respondents answered that there were no “best things” about their timber transactions, but on the subsequent question about the “worst things,” 23% answered that there were no “worst things,” that is, they generally approved or felt comfortable with all the activities they experienced during their timber transaction. Other responses contained five “worst-things” themes: condition of property (42%), communications/contracts (13%), financial (9%), operations (7%), and other (7%).
The worst attributes of timber transactions related to the condition of respondents’ properties following the timber sale and mirrored concerns they had prior to the timber sale. Conditions that were unsatisfactory to the respondents in this category ranged from damaged residual trees to high and difficult-to-drive-over water bars, to “destruction of the beauty and the mess of treetops everywhere…so disheartening.” Financial complaints were almost exclusively about the less than expected or desired revenue received.
Frustration with operations were also diverse with responses related to the timing and completion of the operations to equipment failures, accidents, and abandonment. The “other” category was a catch-all for disappointing realizations like: “I look at it now and wonder if I should have waited,” “the rain and mud,” and “worrying about bad things that never happened.”
The questionnaire also specifically addressed financial concerns. FFOs were asked if they had been concerned about any financial aspect “during the entire timber sale.” This question was followed up by, “If so, when and why were you concerned? If not, why not?” The majority of respondents (73%) did not have any financial concerns. Only one in four respondents (25%) stated concerns and 3% gave answers that were unclear whether it was a concern or not a concern.
Most FFOs who were not concerned gave no specific reason (31%). However, respondents who did give reasons fell into one of four categories: 1) associates (27%), 2) perceived value (27%), 3) contract (9%), or 4) self-confidence/experience (7%).
Equal percentages (27%) of respondents lacking financial concerns had statements coded into the two top categories: associates, who were the people directly involved in the timber transaction in one way or another, and perceived value, which was related to both tangible and intangible values that had accrued to the responding landowners. Eighty-one percent listed one of three associates subcategories—loggers (46%), general log buyers and companies (23%), and/or foresters (13%)—as the main reason they had no financial concerns.
They expressed their confidence in or the professionalism shown by associates in statements like: “Talked with someone who used this logging company; they were very satisfied,” “everything went well…loggers were friendly, hardworking, and paid as the contract stated,” and “we felt we were dealing with fair people and the final payments were close to the estimated amount of timber they said could be taken.” The fourth subcategory—familiarity with associates/process—was a general category that included the remaining 19% of the responses in the associates category. These responses suggested the landowners answering the question had past experiences with timber harvesting on their properties and knew the associates involved or had researched transactions in depth to identify and contact those who could help them in a way to satisfy their goals.
In the category of perceived value, four subcategories were identified: 1) reasons other than income, 2) upfront payments, 3) good revenue, and 4) all aspects worked out (Table 3). Among those in the “reasons other than income” subcategory (40%), respondents stated that income was not their primary reason to sell timber. These respondents were more interested in accomplishing management goals. Some of these goals included salvage logging, creating wildlife habitat, improving their timber stand, and creating new or better pasture or tillable lands.
A nearly equal number of respondents were content with the upfront payments they received (38%) and another 17% thought the revenue they received was good. In fact, a couple of respondents made statements like “received $28,000 more than expected,” and “considered pennies from heaven.” The fourth subcategory— “all aspects worked out”—combined reflections of money, communications, and expectations. For example, one respondent stated, “we agreed upon all fees and were kept in the loop of selling of the timber.”
Two other categories were less frequent as noted in Table 3. Having a contract assuaged the concerns of 9% of the respondents as they reflected “the contract was very specific so no problems were encountered” and “I had a contract for agreed amount of final sale [and] also a contract that I found to protect my interests.” The last category in this group of landowners—self-confidence/experience (7%)—comprised those stating they had no financial concerns due to past experiences with or training and education related to timber harvesting.
Five themed categories emerged from the respondents who indicated they did have a financial concern about their timber transaction. These five categories were related to payments (56%), incidental costs (15%), general concerns (13%), legal issues (8%), and lack of experience (8%).
Just over half (56%) had financial concerns about the payments. Thirty-six percent of these landowners had uncertainty or suspicion of whether the wood being removed from their properties was being accounted for and/or paid for as agreed upon. Some even used strategies to help monitor the removal of timber, as one respondent “was concerned about being paid for every load [and] utilized camera on road.” Others seemed disheartened by not knowing how to monitor the trees cut from their properties. As a few landowners claimed, “we were not aware of how or when a load was removed or when they were taken,” and “through the whole process, I saw trucks leaving but no money coming in.”
Twenty-nine percent of these landowners were simply concerned about maximizing harvested timber value. Another one in four (25%) landowners concerned about payments had unfulfilled expectations. Most of these made statements similar to the one made by a landowner who described his concern as the “actual offered prices were somewhat lower than the estimated price.” The least frequently cited subcategory—missing payments—consisted of landowners who believed they had evidence of logs taken, but not paid for, like the landowner who claimed, “After I was told what the logs would bring, I found out from the mill a different price and I also was told roughly how many loads there were and found out it was double and that I should have received more money.”
If You Would Do It Again
Finally, landowners were asked, “If you could do it again, how would you do it to make it more successful?” A plurality of respondents (Table 4) stated they would not change anything about the sale (30%). Another 12% either had no idea what they might do differently (5%) or would not or could not have another timber sale for one reason or another (7%). The remaining 58% suggested including better contract/planning (16%), better people/companies (14%), better work/operations (11%), better monitoring (9%), and better prices/income (8%).
This evaluation of landowners’ impressions of timber being sold and harvested from their properties corroborates anecdotal information found in extension literature designed to inform people how to successfully sell timber (e.g., Rickenbach 2018, Hoover et al. 2002, Bowers and Punches 2007, Grotta 2014). Some of the primary findings here help shed light on factors that have led to satisfaction with various parts of timber transactions. Other landowners’ written testimonials have brought out points of contention and disappointment with conditions and the associates participating in timber transactions. All of this feedback may help lead to improvements for future transactions.
Prior to harvesting timber, landowners from this study were primarily concerned with the condition of their properties following the sale. Some were concerned with the financial aspect and the various people involved, but most stated concerns about the physical aspects of their properties. They were concerned with damage to roads and residual trees, reduced aesthetics, restricted access, and trash and slash that might be left. Despite these pre-harvesting concerns, most had no or little financial concern before or during the transaction. Still, nearly a third of the respondents listed financial benefits among the “best” things about the timber sale. Importantly, nearly an equal number of respondents stated that “improved forest productivity/habitat” was the best thing about the sale.
Maltempie (2017) highlighted themes common among a diverse group of FFOs who recently had timber transactions. Factors having important consequences in successful transactions included having a forester, previous knowledge of what occurs during a harvest, and trusting the parties that were involved in the harvest. These themes were also found in this broader current study, brought out in the testimonials of responding landowners.
Ideas about what might work best to improve timber transactions were reflected in the FFO testimonials in this study. Given that every timber transaction is different, it is not possible to have a one-size-fits-all approach to guidance on successful timber transactions. However, our study corroborates extension literature that attempts to give guidance to FFOs about certain activities that occur during timber sales and that need to be managed during the entire transaction process. Extension literature recommends that FFOs be clear on their property restrictions, visit the site and communicate with parties who are involved, create a written contract with involved parties, hire a forester, or at least communicate with other professionals for guidance (Heiligmann and Bratkovich 2002, Grotta 2014, Grushecky et al. 2012, Bowers and Punches 2007).
The final question about how timber sales might be improved takes a secondary look at what was not satisfactory. Apart from the 30% who said they would do nothing different, at the top of the list of suggestions is better contracts/planning. In these suggestions were statements demonstrating the lack of control landowners felt during timbering operations as they specified items they would include in a future contract: “set expectations and hold the logger accountable, hold a stronger performance bond,” “demand replanting of cutting areas,” and “learn more about it, better contract, and watch more carefully.” Landowners do not like the sense of not having control of what happens on their properties (McGill et al., 2008).
Again, no two timber transactions are the same. The goal of this research was to illuminate important aspects of successful and unsuccessful timber transactions. The landowners who answered these open-ended questions about who helped them, what was best, what was worst, and what they would do if they could do it again lived through one of these complex experiences. Their participation has resulted in direct and generalized testimonials that will hopefully help both professionals and landowners with understanding about how future timber transactions might be more successful.
Funding for this project was provided by the Appalachian Hardwood Center. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hatch project under WVA00706.
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