More land owned by absentees, study finds

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Landowners in Michigan and other Great Lakes states increasingly don’t live on the property they own, making it difficult for conservation officials to reach them and teach them about stewardship.
Foresters and conservation experts say it’s more about who cares than who’s there — but recent research shows that caring isn’t always enough.
Absentees include farmers who rent their property to others, as well as people who buy land as a place to play or as an investment.
About 42 percent of farmland in the United States is absentee-owned, according to Agren Inc., an agricultural and environmental consulting firm in Iowa.
In Michigan, for example, half of farm owners are absentee, and they own 41 percent of the state’s farm acreage, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The figures are higher in neighboring Indiana – 58 percent of landowners are absentee, accounting for 55 percent of farm acreage – and Ohio, where 53 percent of landowners are absentee, holding 64 percent of farm acreage.
In Michigan’s other neighbor, Wisconsin, 40 percent of landowners are absentee, and they have 34 percent of the state’s farmland.
Absentee owners usually don’t get conservation information from state agencies and forestry officials, according to a recent study by the Great Lakes Protection Fund headquartered in Evanston, Ill. Its research covers Michigan, Wisconsin and New York.
“The problem is people that don’t live near their land may not be knowledgeable with the local natural resources agency,” said lead author Peggy Petrzelka, a sociology professor at Utah State University.
The study of absentee ownership of farms or wooded acreage found that absentees express high environmental concern, especially those who used the land for recreation. When asked whether conservation is important on their property, 88 percent yes to soil, 56 percent said yes to wildlife and 66 percent said yes to water.
Even so, only 16 percent said they were enrolled in a state or federal conservation program.
Eric Roers, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources forester, said that if owners don’t want to conserve their land, outreach is meaningless.
“For us it’s a matter of who’s interested and who’s not – regardless of where they live,” Roers said. “I make appointments all the time with people from Chicago or Minnesota who want to manage their land effectively.”
But Petrzelka said she’s not convinced that the issue is as simple as those who care and those who don’t.
“We see in some surveys people interested in conservation but that don’t know where to get information,” Petrzelka said. “Some want to be engaged but don’t know where to turn.”
Petrzelka said the study’s next step is to identify ways for agencies to reach and work with the absentees because one-size-fits-all communication doesn’t work.
And even if absentees do find conservation agencies to help, sometimes it’s not enough, said Jamie Ridgely, vice president of Agren, which was involved in Petrzelka’s study.
“Even if absentee landowners get the information they need, there are still barriers to conservation,” Ridgely said. “It takes time and relationship-building, and state field offices are not in a position to provide that.”
That’s where private organizations can step in.
“We have a quarterly magazine and a monthly newsletter that goes out to all of our members,” said Bill Botti, executive director of the Michigan Forest Association in Eaton Rapids.
The association helps private owners manage their property. Botti said he isn’t sure how many of its 500 or so members are absentees, but said there are members from across the country, including Arizona and Alaska.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a landowner from Detroit that owns the land or someone from Hawaii,” Botti said. “They face the same challenges.”
Botti said most members are connected to a forester who may sometimes check on their land and help absentees make tree management decisions.
Yet undertaking conservation initiatives can prove difficult even for owners who live on their land, he said.
“Last Memorial Day we had a lot of bad storms and a lot of trees went down,” Botti said. “I’m still getting calls from people who live locally and who just went to see their woods, and they say, ‘Oh my God, I have trees down all over the place.’”
Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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