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Forestry Conservation Groups Focus on Maximizing the Clean Water Benefits of Privately-Owned Forests

23 million acres of forests across 13 southern states are projected to be lost by 2060 if population and urbanization trends continue, according to a USDA Forest Service report. The loss of these healthy, sustainably managed forests would mean a loss of critical economic, environmental and social benefits, including a clean and abundant drinking water supply. The Georgia Forestry Foundation, through its work with Keeping Forests, is collaborating with the research team from Dovetail Partners to identify market-based incentives for private forest landowners that would encourage the conservation and improvement of forested watersheds. 

“Our state’s privately-owned working forests continue to provide so many benefits for our survival, comfort and progress,” said Andres Villegas, President & CEO of the Georgia Forestry Foundation. “The economic and environmental sustainability of our forests are tied together. In order to maximize the benefits of clean water from our forests, we must find market based systems that encourage and reward private landowners for practices that enhance the quality and quantity of drinking water in Georgia.”    

In Georgia, forests cover approximately two-thirds of the state, and 91 percent of that forested land is owned by private landowners. When it comes to the relationship between Georgia’s forests and drinking water, 65 percent of the state’s watersheds flow through forests, according to the State Forestry Commission.

“Properly conserving and managing forestland at high sustainable levels is simply the right thing to do,” said Scott Thackston, Water Quality Program Coordinator for the Georgia Forestry Commission. “Excessive urbanization and population expansion can create problems, conserving and managing forests well is the solution. Having positive economic incentives and policies for forest landowners supports that solution.”

These forests play a significant role in producing cleaner water; improving aquifer recharge; moderating water flow and reducing soil erosion; and, reducing drinking water treatment and transportation costs. According to a study published in the American Water Works Association journal, Connections, high quality source water, like the water that comes from forested watersheds, saved seven cities $6 billion in avoided water treatment costs. 

“Healthy forests are critical to an abundant supply of clean drinking water,” said Scott Davis, Project Coordinator for Keeping Forests. “Supporting local landowners in the management and maintenance of their forests represents one of the most economically efficient and sustainable ways of protecting critical drinking water supplies in the south, while also serving to support local communities and their economies.”

Through its efforts with the Keeping Forests partnership, the Georgia Forestry Foundation is collaborating with Dovetail Partners on a multi-phased project focused on addressing the challenge of maximizing the clean water benefits of privately-owned forests. The project will identify a suite of economic and legal options for engaging landowners in market-based conservation incentives. In addition to research and analysis of current and proposed funding pathways, the initiative will seek to engage private landowners of all sizes and bring together potential collaborators, including municipal water systems and managers. 

“Income from timber sales, hunting leases and other traditional services are well defined markets; however, ecosystem services, such as clean water, have largely not been tradeable in previous markets,” Kathryn Fernholz, President and CEO of Dovetail Partners said. “We look forward to determining the approaches and methods that meet a wide range of landowner objectives while advancing ecosystem services that improve the environment and result in a greater quality of life.” 

This project is made possible through a grant provided by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities. The project will involve coordination and collaboration with several organizations and experts, including the USDA Forest Service and the Southeastern Partnership for Forests & Water. Partnerships with the the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources and the Georgia Forestry Commission will also be critical to landowner outreach and engagement. 

“Interdisciplinary teams of Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources faculty work extensively with landowners to develop natural resource management solutions,” said Dr. Kris Irwin, Associate Dean for Outreach for the Warnell School. “We look forward to working collaboratively with our project partners to provide landowners the tools needed to assure long term benefits from the forest resources they own and manage.”

If you would like to sign up for updates on this project, click here to subscribe to a mailing list for the initiative. For questions on the project, contact GFF’s Ecosystem Services Program Manager Robert Farris at farris@gffgrow.org


Georgia Forestry Foundation (GFF) is a 501(c)3 organization that is focused on the long-term sustainability of Georgia’s working forests. Founded in 1989 and headquartered in Forsyth, Georgia, GFF’s research, outreach and education efforts are focus on reconnecting youth and adults to the land and demonstrating the environmental and economic importance of working forests to the state. www.gfagrow.org

Dovetail Partners, Inc. is a Minnesota-based non-profit organization that fosters sustainability and responsible behaviors through collaboration to develop unique concepts, systems, models, and programs. Dovetail excels at solving complex problems and helping responsible organizations succeed. www.dovetailinc.org

Keeping Forests is a regional partnership with the common mission to keep forests as forests. One voice alone cannot speak for southern forests, and a single entity cannot ensure its conservation. Our partners represent a range of interests. From environmental experts and private landowners to global corporations and government agencies, each of our partners illuminate the critical ecological, economic, and social importance of the region’s forests. www.keepingforests.org 

U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities works collaboratively with partners in the public and private sectors to advance systemic, transformative and sustainable change for the health and vitality of the nation’s working forests and forest-reliant communities. www.usendowment.org 

Georgia Forestry Commission is a state agency focused on protecting and conserving Georgia's forest resource through leadership, service and education. www.gatrees.org 

University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources exists to prepare leaders in the conservation and sustainable management of forests and other natural resources; to discover ways to restore and better use the earth’s natural resources; and to put into practice forestry and natural resources knowledge. www.warnell.uga.edu 

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