This issue brief provides an overview of how public land, including forestland, can be “put to work” to earn revenue from one or more ecosystem service market opportunities. Working forest revenue sources include sustainable timber production, recreation and hunting fees, and – to the extent that management activities enhance environmental quality – payments for carbon sequestration, endangered species habitats, and/or water quality.

Executive Summary

  • To date, traditional public land acquisition programs have played a relatively small role in the conservation and sustainable management of southern U.S. forests. The South trails behind other U.S. regions in both the percent of the land base and the acres per capita conserved in parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness, and other protective categories.

  • Working forests offer a new model for scaling up the amount of publicly protected forestland in the South. “Working forests” are defined as forests that are actively managed to generate revenue from multiple sources, including sustainably produced timber and other ecosystem services, and thus are not converted to other land uses such as residential development.

  • A public entity can “acquire” a working forest in two ways. It can purchase all of the property rights associated with a forest through a fee simple, or outright, purchase of the land from willing sellers. Alternatively, a public entity can purchase just the development rights to the forest through a conservation easement, leaving ownership of all the other rights in the hands of private landowners. This brief uses the term “acquire” to cover both fee simple and conservation easement purchases.

  • Public entities can finance working forests via public bonds, sales taxes, or other means. In return, revenues from working forests can be used to offset acquisition costs over time, cover stewardship expenses, and/or pay taxpayers “dividends” in the form of tax rebates or some other equitable revenue sharing scheme after expenses are covered.

  • Citizen advisory boards could shoulder much of the administrative and management responsibility for the working forest, thereby keeping management and financing local.

  • Revenues from timber, recreation, and other ecosystem service payments, increases in tax revenue due to higher surrounding property values, and avoided development costs are among the economic benefits generated by working forests.

  • Scaling up working forests in the South would necessitate further documentation of the economic benefits of the model relative to traditional acquisition programs, broadening the scale and scope of available financing options, offering favorable tax benefits, and educating woodland owners about the benefits of working forests.

  • This issue brief is intended as a resource primarily for local public officials in the southern United States who are interested in a more cost-effective approach to acquiring and managing public forestland. It provides readers with several economic scenarios that examine the community benefits of a working forest model and discusses the opportunities for scaling up the model in the region.