This week, the Senate Committee on Agriculture will discuss the past and future direction of the Farm Bill’s forestry and conservation tools and how they apply to family forest owners.

From the perspective of a family Tree Farmer and avid sportsman, I can say, my family and I, and many others of the 22 million family forest owners across rural America, depend on the Farm Bill programs to help us manage and care for our forests and the resources they produce.

We hope Congress will consider the importance of family forest owners’ role in providing Americans with an array of benefits and resources, and the needed support that can help us successfully manage our land.

It is estimated that across the U.S., 1 in 6 rural Americans are family forest owners. All together, they own more than a third (36 percent) of the forest land in the United States. Our impact is widely felt. Fourteen million miles of streams and rivers run through family forests, supporting the water supply that runs to faucets. We also care for more than 78 million acres of core forest habitat needed by our iconic wildlife and at-risk species. And more than half the timber used in forest products comes from our lands.

My wife Dianne and I are two of these family forest owners. We own and care for 2,200 acres of forestland near southern Alabama’s Gulf Coast. We started with just 158 acres as a place to enjoy the outdoors and wildlife. Our dream was nearly destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan. But Ivan was a blessing in disguise. As we examined the devastation, we noticed one tree – longleaf pine -- survived the hurricane remarkably well, which led us reevaluate.

We decided to restore part of our forest in longleaf pine. But like a farm operation, managing forestland comes with costs for labor, equipment and other supplies. Thanks to the Farm Bill conservation programs, and hard work, we were able to create the forest we wanted that also provides many others, outside our property lines, with benefits.

As we were managing our growing longleaf forest, we began seeing significant habitat results - not only for deer, turkey and quail, but also for the threatened gopher tortoise. Like other landowners, I was worried about having an at-risk species on my land, and how regulatory restrictions under the Endangered Species Act might could affect me.

Luckily, I was about to negotiate an agreement with the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.  It allows me to continue my management while also creating habitat for the gopher tortoise.  In exchange, USFWS gives me protection from some of the regulatory burdens.  

Our story is not unusual.  According to a recent survey by the American Forest Foundation, one of the top reasons family forest owners own their land is for wildlife and conservation. We want to do what’s right by the land and -- with the right tools and funds -- we can get it done.

Given family forest owners’ role in keeping America’s forest ecosystem healthy, we believe the following priorities should be in the 2018 Farm Bill.

First, Congress must maintain funding for their forestry and conservation programs. We understand that budgets are tight. However, programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program have shown they provide enormous benefits for family who cannot afford management activities.

Next, Congress should find opportunities to improve technical assistance and program implementation processes for woodland owners. While the agencies have made significant progress in including forest owners, there are still many challenges. Tackling them will result in more efficient delivery of program resources and increased benefits.

Third, Congress must provide regulatory assurance for at-risk wildlife management. There are significant opportunities to capitalize on landowners’ interest in wildlife, by expanding programs similar to the one we are involved with for the gopher tortoise. Congress should focus on drafting policies that encourage proactive, preventive action by family landowners and provide protection from regulatory burden.

Fourth, the Farm Bill must support cross-boundary, landscape-scale efforts to tackle forestry issues. Whether it’s reducing wildfire risk or protecting at-risk wildlife populations, it won’t be enough if just one or two landowners in a landscape are managing. We need to take a shared stewardship approach and work cross-boundary.

Finally, Congress must support a strong, diverse forest products industry. Markets can be one of the biggest tools for tackling issues such as wildlife management, as it means landowners are connected with experts such as foresters, and are receiving the needed income to manage for wildlife. Ensuring market growth, through such bills as the Timber Innovation Act, are extremely helpful.

With these programs in place, family forest owners can do their part to keep America’s forests – and the wildlife that live in them – healthy and thriving.

Dr. Salem Saloom lives is Conecuh County, Alabama. He is a member of the American Forest Foundation’s Board of Trustees.