Archived Outdoors

Private land, public impact: Workshop series helps woodland landowners better steward their forest

A trailbuilding crew pulls back a mat of leaves and roots. Pat Barcas photo A trailbuilding crew pulls back a mat of leaves and roots. Pat Barcas photo

Usually, talk around conservation and forest management focuses on big chunks of public land like the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not smaller parcels of private acreage. According to Lang Hornthal, co-executive director of the nonprofit EcoForesters, that needs to change — added together, those smaller parcels cover enormous swaths of land. 

“In Western North Carolina almost 70% of forests are privately owned, so if we expect to have an impact on a landscape scale, we really need to engage this landowner base,” Hornthal said. 

That’s just what Hornthal and his organization will attempt to do in a series of landowner workshops planned to impact 16 WNC counties over the next three to four years. The next one, targeted to landowners in Jackson and Swain counties, will take place 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, at Southwestern Community College in Bryson City.

Offered in partnership with Jackson County Cooperative Extension, the N.C. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program will start with a brief overview of the history and current state of WNC forests and the threats they face. Then the discussion will turn toward what healthy forests look like and how landowners can benefit from forest management planning. Speakers from Extension and the NCFS will present, and the agenda will include opportunities for landowners to speak one-on-one with forestry professionals, asking questions specific to their land and situation. 

Nearly all public lands are required to undergo some form of land management planning, and while land trusts do not have any such requirement, the conservation easements that constitute their main conservation tool also act as a plan. Private landowners don’t have to create a management plan, and many of them don’t. 

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“Most don’t have a forest stewardship budget at all, and those that do, it’s never adequate,” Hornthal said. “That’s no fault of the landowner. That’s just how it has always been.”

But planning and active management are vital to maintaining forest health and protecting woodlands from the increasing threats they face. Development, climate change and the ongoing march of invasive species and diseases have already taken a heavy toll on North American forests, and these challenges aren’t going away anytime soon. 

“I think there’s a predominant view that nature will always take care of itself,” Hornthal said. “And while I think that natural systems are very resilient and capable of doing so, humans have really kind of put some mud in the gears of their ability to do so. Given the pace of development and climate change and invasive species, nature is not able to recover like it normally would.”

Hornthal said EcoForesters’ goal is to help landowners take the next step in better managing their land, meeting them where they are in their land management journey. For some people, that first step might be simply learning about why forest planning is important. For others who are further down the path, it might be getting help writing a plan or learning where to find funding to help them implement an existing plan. 

Because most forest landowners fall into older age groups, Hornthal said, there’s likely to be considerable turnover of forest ownership in the coming years — making planning efforts on private land even more important. 

“If a landowner has a plan, and they either die or decide to hand down or sell their property, if they are able hand that new owner a plan the odds are that  they are going to keep it like it is and make better decisions,” he said. 

Good forest management is important not only for the specific piece of land in question, but also for the landscape as a whole. Quality habitat on private land can complement other types of habitat on nearby public land, and help provide corridors for wildlife species to move between conserved areas. Invasive species can also move between tracts, so preventing infestation on private land protects nearby public land, and vice versa. 

This type of landscape-scale restoration will be EcoForesters’ focus over the next three years as it seeks to implement a $500,000 grant it received last year from the U.S. Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry Landscape Scale Restoration grant program. Through the grant, EcoForesters will work to implement goals in the N.C. Forest Action Plan, which identifies several rural areas in Western North Carolina as forest stewardship priorities. The project will fund planning and restoration for private landowners, help them gain access to cost-share funds and offer technical assistance. 

The effort includes three separate project areas: the Sandy Mush project area in Buncombe, Madison and Haywood counties; the Cherokee project area on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding private lands in Jackson, Swain and Macon counties; and the Foothills project in McDowell, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba and Rutherford counties. 

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The EcoForesters crew enjoys a five-star view during a day on the job. Pat Barcas photo

EcoForesters offered forest landowners workshops like the one coming up on Jan. 28 prior to receiving the grant, offering two such workshops each year before the Coronavirus Pandemic. However, the goal of the workshops fits cleanly with the goal of the grant, and EcoForesters expects to increase both total participation and the total number of events compared to the status quo prior to 2020. Hornthal said there will be “at least three” offered in 2023, with the next one likely to take place somewhere in the Foothills project area. 

By the end of the three-year grant period ending June 30, 2025, EcoForesters aims to reach 20,000 landowners, with 5,000 of those “significantly engaged” in the forest planning process. It’s targeting 5,000 acres under new or revised forest management plans and 2,000 acres of forest stand improvement restoration. In addition, the nonprofit aims to achieve 1,000 acres of non-native invasive species control

“It’s exciting,” Hornthal said. “This is going to allow us to do a lot of the things we were already doing and have already proven to be important, just a little larger landscape and hopefully get more accomplished.”


By the numbers

  • 83% of forested land in North Carolina is privately owned

  • 69% of forestland in the western 23 counties is privately owned

  • 55% of all land in the western 23 counties is privately owned forest

  • 25% of all land in the western 23 counties is publicly owned forest

  • 20% of all land in the western 23 counties is not forested 

  • 39% of all forest in the U.S. is owned by families, the largest of any ownership group

  • 29% of all forest in the U.S. is owned by the federal government

Source: U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis National Program and EcoForesters analysis of public data 


Calling all forest landowners

A forest landowner workshop coming 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, at Southwestern Community College in Bryson City will give landowners a chance to learn principles and resources for stewarding their forest. 

The nonprofit EcoForesters is offering the workshop in partnership with Jackson County Extension, the N.C. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with sessions to cover how forests have become degraded over time and what can be done to restore them. Landowners will receive access to professionals, maps of their forest and information on cost share funding in a casual setting. Subjects will include information about forest management resources, tax incentives for forest management, cultivating non-timber forest products and how to enroll forests in carbon markets. 

Free, with lunch provided, thanks to funding from the U.S. Forest Service Landscape Scale Restoration Grant. Snow date is Feb. 4. Register at

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