The Families Keeping Forestland, Forestland

Meet the American Southeast landowners whose love for the forest goes back generations.

Private family forestland in the American Southeast

For families in the American Southeast who own forestland, caring for trees is a way of life. It’s a commitment to supporting the ecosystem and preserving what’s beautiful for future generations. To them, it’s just the right thing to do.

So when challenges arise that might convince them to sell the land — like hurricanes, invasive species, or expensive upkeep — they aren’t easily persuaded. According to forestry consultant Will Leonard, who cares for clients’ forests in the Florida panhandle, it’s because their passion for the forest is rooted in something deeper than money.

“Most of these landowners are multi-generational families and landowners,” he says. “This is property that’s been in families at least two generations, and you have a deep sense of place and connection to the land. It's a connection to people they knew and loved who were good stewards of the land before them.”

Whether they own 20 acres or 2,000, what all landowners have in common is a love for the land, its history, and its wildlife. Chances are, they either grew up on family forestland, or their family taught them to appreciate trees starting in childhood.


Burke Hayes, a forest owner in Florida, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t in or near a forest.

“We've been in the woods all our life. I can remember riding around the car with my grandfather and going in the woods, and he loved to fish,” he says. “He was managing that land, so I was able to go in those woods starting at a very young age. My father taught me to drive down in those woods. I have good memories of that.”

Now, his property is home to him and his wife. About a mile away, his adult son is raising a family on the same land. Another generation of caretakers for the family’s property is already growing.

It’s a family thing. I have four grandchildren. I tell everybody I’m planting trees for them.

Burke Hayes

Stelling Nelson, whose forest has been in the family for four generations, also has a deep affection for all the beauty the trees offer. Deer, turkey, quail, and even the occasional bear roam his property, enhancing an ecosystem lovingly cared for by Nelson and his family, a private forester, two wildlife biologists, and the Georgia Forestry Commission. To him, doing what’s right for wildlife is essential — even when it’s expensive.

Owning a forest is often a labor of love. On top of managing the forest and its wildlife, owners often work full-time jobs to cover the cost of hiring professionals for sustainable management, as well as everyday costs like insect and disease prevention and fencing. It could cost several thousand dollars for a professional to conduct a controlled burn of only a hundred acres. This level of personal financial commitment takes forestry ownership from hobby to lifestyle.

"It really is another full-time job,” says Nelson. “The land is not where you're going to make a living. You are doing it because of the passion and love of the land.”

These landowners know their woods like the back of their hand, even their ancient history. Forests in the Southeast grow in areas that used to mark the end of the ocean 35 million years ago. And today, it’s not unusual for owners to unearth the odd shark tooth or fossil in a creek bed.

For those nature lovers who don’t inherit a forest, purchasing one is a lifelong dream. Newton Jennings had always been an avid outdoorsman, and when the opportunity arose for him to purchase forested land for his family in 2021, he jumped at it.

“We purchased it as a piece of land where we could practice conservation wildlife management, habitat management. It was a financial stretch for us, but we jumped in with both feet and said, ‘if this this is doable, we’re going to make it work.’”

Jennings is already passing down conservation values to his three teenage sons, as his own family did for him. They already shadow (from a safe distance) the Georgia Forestry Commission professionals who manage controlled burns on the property. Someday, Jennings wants to pass the land onto them.

“This is a little piece of God’s earth. And if I can maintain a section where we keep it wild and free, I want to do that,” he says.

For Annie Dawson, seeing her father own a forest in her childhood fueled her desire to own one someday. After retiring from teaching, she finally found the perfect opportunity — near where her parents owned land. With its fishpond, vineyard, and abundance of wildlife, it was everything she always wanted.

“I never dreamed I would be able to get a piece of property like that. It’s quiet. It’s serene. I’d rather go up there and sit on the porch and swing, it’s just relaxing,” she says.


In the American Southeast, owning a forest means having a mailbox full of offers to buy it. For townhomes. Businesses. Cropland.

The American Southeast in Focus

We plant trees around the world, but focus our efforts on key regions where trees can do the most good. In the American Southeast, we’re supporting efforts to restore longleaf pine and other native species at a massive scale. Since most of the land is privately owned, the Arbor Day Foundation is working with landowners and public entities alike to further reforestation efforts.

Reforestation projects

But the land would suffer. Natural biodiversity would fall to urbanization. And an essential region for long-term reforestation could be cleared away.

For landowners, the money doesn’t matter. Even when disastrous hurricanes tear through the area, the work gets challenging, or money starts to run low. When faced with a world of challenges that could tempt anyone to cut their losses and move on, they’re staying rooted.

The Arbor Day Foundation works with local, thoroughly vetted partners who give landowners in the Southeast the financial boost they need to keep forestland, forestland. It allows landowners to hold true to their values, and the forests to survive for generations more.

“The money doesn’t matter to me. I’m not interested in selling anything. God’s not going to make any more land, so if you got something, you better hold onto it. Just keep it in its natural habitat and pass it on down to your children,” Dawson says.

For Hayes, he thinks anyone making offers is short-sighted. They don’t understand the legacy growing in family forests.

“They think everybody’s trying to get rid of land because most people don’t think long-term. I’m thinking, I hope my grandchildren grow up and take it over,” he says. “I’ve told them, ‘One day, you’re also going to do this for your grandchildren, if you’re lucky.’”

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