A legacy of trees and family ties: Local timberland owners focus on estate planning

Clark County tree farmers strive to protect themselves, their children and their land

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The “Ties to the Land” program for succession planning will bring two upcoming workshops to Southwest Washington.

March 10: Cowlitz County Training Center, 1942 First Ave., Longview. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

April 7: Clark County Public Works Operations Center, 4700 N.E. 78th St., Vancouver. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The workshops are sponsored by the Washington State University Extension and other agencies. More information is available from WSU Extension

Steve Stinson sees it all the time: A family reluctant to tackle the complex world of estate planning, afraid they’re too dysfunctional to make it work. Toss a tree farm into the equation, and the task seems downright daunting for some.

Not to worry, Stinson says. You’re not alone.

“All families are dysfunctional,” said Stinson, executive director of the Family Forest Foundation. “I think that’s one of the eye-openers for people, is just how much they have in common with everybody else. Everybody goes through this stuff.”

For small-scale timberland owners, the process carries a host of other complicating factors. Fathers and mothers balance emotions and economics, weighing how to preserve a valuable natural resource while keeping in mind their own financial future. Children find themselves in the discussion whether they’re interested or not.

Families often face a series of difficult questions can we pass our timberland onto the next generation? Do we sell it? Harvest the timber? Pursue another option?

Those questions aren’t answered overnight.

“It’s a conversation and a process,” Stinson said. “It’s not an end point.”

It’s a topic Rick Dunning knows well. As executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, he often works with families who are planning the future of their timberlands. And Dunning himself recently started the same process with his wife and children.

The Dunning Family Tree Farm sits on 135 acres just outside Yacolt, a mix of older growth in place for decades and newer timber planted since the family bought the land in 1988. Dunning considers the land a labor of love and an investment and said he’d like to eventually pass it onto his three adult children.

The first family meeting to focus on the farm’s future happened during a workshop in 2009, Dunning said. The gathering highlighted the importance of having everyone on the same page, he said, and made it clear that any transition wouldn’t be a simple process. But it’s an important conversation to have even if most families aren’t eager to jump in, he added.

“It’s not comfortable. It’s not natural,” Dunning said. “It’s kind of like talking about your parents dying. No one wants to do that.”

The Dunnings and other families started with “Ties to the Land,” a succession planning program specifically geared toward timberland owners in the Northwest. The program started from the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University, and now puts on workshops across the region.

Stinson will lead a series of those workshops in Washington this year, including one in Vancouver next month. He said the idea is not to end up with an estate plan in writing. It’s about starting a discussion that will evolve over time.

Stinson noted three outside voices that timber families should consider having at the table: an attorney, a financial adviser and an accountant. That expertise can help navigate a maze of estate laws, tax rules and other hurdles, he said. Answering questions in advance can prevent scrambling and potentially huge costs if a forestland owner dies with those matters unresolved, he added.

Dunning said he considers himself lucky. His three children, all in their late 20s or early 30s, are successful in their own endeavors but still willing to talk about the family tree farm. Dunning and his wife, Karen, along with sons Kale and Keegan, all live in Clark County. His daughter, Rachel, lives in Australia but remains involved in the conversation and annual family meetings.

Rick and Keegan Dunning spent a recent Saturday doing some basic trimming and maintenance on the farm, working under damp, gray skies. Later standing in a large shed on the property, the two talked about the farm’s past and future.

Growing up, Keegan said he never thought about someday taking over the land with his siblings. Mostly he remembers camping, shooting his first deer, and working.

“We planted a lot of seedlings,” he said.

Keegan said all three of the Dunning children want what’s best for their parents, the ones who poured years of sweat and money into the farm. Rick still hopes to pass it on within the family but isn’t sure what will happen. Financial considerations for him and Karen will factor in, he said.

“This is our pension,” Rick said. “That’s true for a lot of people.”

The region’s vast timberlands play a big role in making Clark County’s economic engine hum, said Dick Easter, who used to lead a local chapter of the Farm Forestry Association. In addition to income for the farmers themselves, timberland also gives secondary work to truck drivers, loggers and others, he said. The Farm Forestry Association includes 246 family memberships in Clark County alone.

Easter has little doubt that his tree farm north of Amboy will eventually pass on to his five children. With 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, he hopes the land will stay connected to his family even beyond them.

Easter and Dunning are far from the only tree farmers thinking about that transition. Stinson said the average age of forestland patriarchs and matriarchs is pushing 75, likely to mean a lot of land changing hands relatively soon.

“If we can’t figure out how to make this work,” Stinson said, “we’re going to see a lot of forestland shifting to nonforest uses.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.