the True Value of a Forest

Penn State Forest Stewards series article – written by Jim Finley, Professor Emeritus, Forest Resources Management, Center for Private Forests at Penn State.

Over the past year, as we have sought outdoor experiences, have our attitudes towards forests changed? For many, time in forests and woodlands provided solace and distance from others. These are seemingly disparate ideas seeking comfort in isolation when so many were pining for interactions with others. Regardless of individual intents, records and observations suggest the past year has drawn many to new outdoor experiences. As a person who has always looked for time afield in wooded landscapes, I wonder if the past year has changed relationships to forests, woodlands, and trees.
2021-03 PAFS article Jim Finley on the True Value of Forests

What did those individuals who initiated, restarted, or confirmed their affinity to sylvan landscapes think? What did they see? What questions did they have? Did they see a working forest or a preserved landscape?

To the last point, I will offer that all forests are working, even protected woodlands; for example, state and county parks are working. Public forests and private forests are working. They work as they create, deliver, and share diverse benefits.

A Working Forest is a Managed Forest

The forestry literature offers that a “working forest is actively managed to generate revenue from multiple sources, including sustainably produced timber and other ecosystem services, and thus are not converted to other land uses such as residential development.” This is a challenging definition.

The working forest definition is specific, imploring people to manage forests. What does this mean? A quick read would suggest the need to manage for traditional forestry products – trees, timber, logs, or pulpwood; however, it also allows for ecosystem services through forest management. Managing a forest to produces products involves decisions and action. Managing a forest for ecosystem services, such as water, air, habitat, or what are commonly considered non-market goods, offers a different perspective.

Managing involves choices. The big decision in the definition of working forests is to not convert forests to other uses. Keeping forests as current primary land use is the most important decision. If you know anything about Pennsylvania’s land-use history, you likely know that in the late 1880s through the 1920s, we felled forests across most of the state.  Acres of forest were converted to agriculture or impacted by coal and mineral extraction. Many of these acres were subsequently abandoned. For the past 50 years, the area of forest has remained relatively constant at about 56 percent. Unfortunately, there are concerns that development decisions are likely to begin to reduce forest cover.

the Tax Economics of Forest Land

Across Pennsylvania and many other states, local governments consider forests the default land use – that is, undeveloped. As undeveloped land, it does not produce the same tax revenue as developed lands. As such, there is often strong local interest to convert forests to other uses. 

On the contrary, studies often find that “undeveloped” forested land benefits local government. While they do not produce as much tax income, they do not require infrastructure and service investments.  Protecting or conserving working forests yields tangible and intangible benefits. Those benefits fall into three convenient buckets commonly discussed in the context of sustainability: economic, social, and ecological values or benefits.

the True Value of a Forest

Economic products directly derived from forests are important in Pennsylvania. The flow of forest products from our forests and into manufacturing processes employs nearly 65,000 across the state and adds an estimated 21.5 billion dollars to the economy. Pennsylvania’s forest product industry is important in both rural and urban communities and contributes significantly to global trade.

The social values derived from our forests affect human values at all levels from the individual to the larger community. The calming and healing powers for forests and trees were, as suggested earlier, increasingly important this past year. As well, recreation in forested landscapes is another huge economic engine in Pennsylvania. And who does not appreciate forested landscapes that add so much to much of our daily lives?

Sometimes, though we fail to appreciate the ecological contributions of forests. While we can easily appreciate the economic needs and outcomes for products and how forests support our social systems, understanding and valuing ecological services is more abstract. While most people know that clean air and water are important benefits derived from our environment, tying them back to, and valuing them as coming from, forests is more obscure. How often do we consider the connections that occur between forests, land, and the water that comes from your kitchen faucet? How often do we link songbirds to healthy forests? It is easy to overlook the immense values of forests, and how they work for all of us.

Forests and Our Future

Someone once wrote that forests depend on our management and care, that through the economics of forest management we protect and maintain forests. This may be in part true, but where would we be without the ecological services that we derive from forests? And what does care look like to protect those values? Forests would continue without our management and involvement; although, because of us – people – forests have changed. They are different from what they were 400 years ago in Pennsylvania. They are different from a decade ago when the emerald ash borer first showed up in the state, or five years ago when the spotted lanternfly was first found. We have to recognize that change and work to care well within a changed system.

Our dependence on healthy forests is increasing. We need to keep our forests working for their economic, social, and ecological benefits and values. This past year, for many of us, strengthened our relationship to forests and the values they provide. 

We changed because we went there for personal values and needs. Hopefully, we will continue to go to the forest and, as a result, will learn more about how they serve us – and we will work to care well for them in the future, knowing how our forests work for us.


emphasis and headings supplied by Cook Forest Conservancy, and apologies to the author!  

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.