Buying Land

Timberland Ownership Trends and 1031 Exchanges

Depending on whether state laws recognize timber rights as real property along with the duration of the rights directly impacts their eligibility for a tax deferred 1031 exchange. Factors impacting demand for timber include the U.S. housing market, paper products and market demand from Europe and China. Forest land owners selling timber rights and timberland utilize the Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 to defer capital gains when selling and reinvesting into either second growth timberland tracts, oil and gas royalties or commercial property.

Timber Rights

In many states timber rights can be separated and sold independently of the timberland. Given the timber right is not a carve out or for a short period of time, the right can be exchanged for real property.

Changing Ownership Trend

A current trend appears to be forest product companies divesting themselves of timberland while institutional investors and family owners are increasing their timberland investment portfolios.

  • In February, 2011, Hancock Timber Resource Group purchased an 82,000 acre block in SouthWest Washington from Weyerhaeuser for $200 million.
  • In October, 2010, media billionaire John Malone bought the 53,524 acre “Frontier Forest” near Jackman, Maine for $14 million from Great Eastern Timber Company, LLC. His Maine land holdings are nearly 70,000 acres.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2009 the nation had 500 million acres of timberland. The ownership breakdown was as follows: government, 27%; wood and paper companies, 17%; institutional investors like college endowments, 4%; individuals, 54%, up from 45% two decades ago.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s National Woodland Owner Survey, an estimated 11 million private forest owners control 56% of the forest land in the United States. Family forest owners account for 92% of the private forest owners and 62% of private forest land (35% of all forest land) in the United States.

Over the years, there has been a significant increase in the number of family forest ownerships. These wealthy individuals and families buy timberland for using it as aesthetic and recreational amenities, family legacy, timber production and as an investment.

Timberland investors engage in the use of 1031 exchanges to upgrade their portfolios of timberland holdings (swapping 5% returns for 8% returns). Timberland sales and purchases must be carefully managed to optimize three return components: biological growth, timber product prices and land value. Similar to REITs or Real Estate Investment Trusts, Timber REITs such as publicly traded Plum Creek, PotlatchRayonier, timberland is disposed and acquired similar to commercial property based upon investment criteria.

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About the author

Andy Gustafson, CES

Andy Gustafson, Certified Exchange Specialist®, is a managing member of Atlas 1031 Exchange, LLC, a nationwide accommodator of Internal Revenue Code Section 1031. He founded the company in 2007, and has since expanded his professional services into Texas and the Midwest. He has spoken to hundreds of investors at Wealth Camps and Real Estate Investment Clubs nationwide and is a sought after speaker on the topic. As an approved continuing educational provider, he has helped hundreds of Realtors, Attorneys, and CPAs understand the application of the 1031 code. To date he has accommodated over 500 exchanges representing $433,000,000 in exchanged value and deferring over $22,000,000 in taxes.


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  • Andy,

    I have a commercial property with a building that is leased to a tenant. I would like to exchange it for rural acreage with timber. Will that qualify for a 1031 Exchange? I am not sure that would be considered “like kind”.

    Thank you,

  • Short sided people look at timberland for only timber. Many things develop and love the shade it gives them to grow: mushrooms, ginseng, landscape ferns, small trees for sale in landscaping yards. Maple syrup is reaped from those many maple forests. There are probably many more I haven’t mentioned or know about. If a timberland owner just lets the forest sit and vegetate, he is missing a great income while his timber is growing for cutting.

    • Exactly! I have tried to help the farmers realize that! But they are milk and beef/vegetable farmers. I would like to know how to make them realize this! Any suggestions?

    • This was my original question. I feel my forest is accureing $3,000 per year. 200 acres of varied hardwoods ( and probably some sugar maples which would be softwood? )
      Are my figures right?

  • Unfortunately, most 1031 clientele are not interested or receptive until their CPA suggest the tax consequences of selling, then the wheels of how to defer the capital gain begin to turn.

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