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The Trees We Don’t Cut Reveal How Much We Value Other Aspects Of Forests

In survey responses, many private woodland owners say that scenery, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities are more important to them than timber harvests. Now a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher has come up with a method to estimate just how valuable those non-market goods are.

Although the results are preliminary, they show that the non-timber value of forests can easily exceed timber revenues, especially on public forestlands. The results indicate that the non-timber value of a single major forest type in Wisconsin can be several tens of millions of dollars each year.

“We are willing to pay a lot for these non-timber values,” says Joseph Buongiorno, a forest economist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Recently appointed the John N. McGovern Professor of Forest Ecology and Management, Buongiorno directed the study, which appeared in the Journal of Forest Economics.

Buongiorno believes it is important to understand the value we place on timber and the other benefits from national, state, county, private and industrial forests. “When we as owners, managers or citizens make decisions about forests, we often do so without all the data,” he says.

Paradoxically, to assign a dollar value to non-timber forest benefits, Buongiorno”s method requires the best possible information on the economics of timber production.

In principle, the method is straightforward. “The method measures how much timber income owners are willing to give up to enjoy other benefits of the forest,” he says.

Buongiorno uses a computer model he developed and tested over 15 years to calculate the maximum sustainable profit an owner could realize from timber sales. Then he subtracts the value of timber an owner harvested. The difference, according to Buongiorno, is an estimate of the aesthetic, wildlife, recreation and conservation values that owners derive from their forested lands.

To apply the method, Buongiorno needed information on many stands whose composition and harvest had been documented. He and his colleagues turned to 610 maple-birch stands in Wisconsin, which he had used in developing his model for maximizing sustainable timber returns. The 610 stands were part of a USDA Forest Service database; all the stands had been measured twice between 1966 and 1984.

Buongiorno divided the 610 stands by ownership groups — private non-industrial (314), industrial (95), county and state (95), and federal (106). The results allowed him to compare how different owners managed their forests for timber and non-timber resources.

The non-timber values were highest on national forests, according to the study. At $20 per acre per year, non-timber values were nearly 10 times greater than timber revenues.

For other owners, Buongiorno says, the average non-timber values ranged from $8 per acre per year to $9.50 per acre per year. On county and state forest lands non-timber values were four times greater than timber revenues. Non-timber values were almost twice timber revenues on private non-industrial lands. Even on industry lands, non-timber values were slightly higher than timber revenues.

The maple-birch forest type constituted 27 percent of Wisconsin”s commercial forests — nearly 4 million acres — at the time of the study. Using the low figure of $8 per acre per year, Wisconsin owners were giving up $32 million per year in timber revenue for aesthetic, wildlife and recreational benefits they derived from maple-birch forests during the study period.

Moreover, the non-timber value of maple-birch forests actually increased during the 16-year study, according to Buongiorno. Between 1966 and 1984, the study found that non-timber value increased by 30 percent for national forests and 55 percent for other forests.

Buongiorno says that the main weakness of his approach is that it assumes that owners know just how much timber they should cut in order to maximize the profits from timber sales from their forests. But, he believes it is unlikely that all owners make the mistake of harvesting too little, all the time.

The economist also recognizes that maple-birch stands probably have a higher non-timber value than, for example, aspen or pine stands. Maple-birch forests are characterized by a diverse group of tree species of different ages and sizes, according to Buongiorno. Those features may add to their non-timber appeal for many owners.

Although the technique is preliminary, Buongiorno believes that eventually foresters may apply it widely to other types of timber stands in Wisconsin and across the nation.

A native of France, Buongiorno is best known for developing mathematical and statistical models of forest management and trade. He has received numerous teaching and research awards from the Society of American Foresters and the UW-Madison.

Buongiorno”s co-authors on the paper about the non-timber value of maple-birch stands include Riccardo Scarpa, Jiing-Shyang Hseu and Karen Lee Abt.

The research was supported by state funding to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; funding from the USDA Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station; and a McIntire-Stennis grant from the UW-Madison School of Natural Resources.