How To Make Money From Woodlands

A case study shows how a natural woodland or forest can be left intact and still provide a revenue stream.

Evening sun shining in spruce forest with a little pine in focus in the background in the summer
Schon / Getty Images

Traditionally, monetizing a wooded lot often meant capitalizing on timber – choosing commercial timber trees and managing them effectively. But increasingly, there is an understanding that more money can potentially be made by keeping trees standing than can be made from chopping them down.

Of course, money is not everything. We have to recognize that real and lasting value is derived from natural resources. We need to look at value in environmental and social terms, and look at the triple bottom line rather than just financial profit.

But money is a fact of life – and few can get by entirely without it. So homesteaders, farmers, foresters, and other land managers need to find ways to generate income from their land.

Making Money From Non-Timber Forest Products

There is an increasing interest in non-timber forest products – and the potential revenue streams they open up. Many of my projects, as a permaculture designer and sustainability consultant, revolve around agroforestry approaches, woodland preservation and restoration, and the yields they can provide. Usually, plans involve planting new trees, rather than felling old ones.

Sustainable coppicing can provide timber without requiring clear felling. And planting new fruit or nut trees, for example, can provide yields and allow you to make money from your land.

But today, I'd like to explore some ways that entirely natural woodland or forest can be left intact and still provide a revenue stream. This concept differs from agroforestry or afforestation in that it involves conservation, rather than restoration or improvement.

Woodlands and Forests

While the terms woodland and forest are often used interchangeably, the U.S. Forest Service considers woodlands as a subset of forest lands, with specific tree species and typically with less crown cover than traditional forests. The United States has a total of 57 million acres of woodlands; nearly one-half of which is owned by private non-corporate landowners.

First of all, it is important to note that leaving a woodland or forest intact does not necessarily mean that we do not touch it at all. In many areas, conservation work may involve building back biodiversity in lower layers or ground cover. In some cases, it might involve the removal of invasive plant species and their replacement with native plants.

A healthy natural woodland or forest system can provide a range of yields. Of course, it might provide edible yields – top fruit, nuts, berries, fungi, and other perennial food crops. It might also yield resins, saps, and gums. The non-timber forest products provided by natural ecosystems will vary significantly depending on where they are in the world. But there are almost always avenues for revenue to explore.

On a recent project I worked on in Somalia, for example, myrrh and frankincense trees allow for sustainable businesses that bring greater economic security to communities in the region. And in a recent project in the U.S., maple trees in native woodland will be tapped to make syrup as part of a diversification plan for a small community.

Other Ways To Make Money From Native Woodland or Forest

But aside from non-timber forest products, there are other ways to make money from a native woodland or forest, that are not frequently considered. A recent project of mine in the U.K. has brought to the fore the idea that a native woodland is also a draw for visitors – and the opportunities that can bring in terms of paying guests.

The project involves a woodland craft community who will create an area of sustainably coppiced woodland in an area, currently pasture, that is in the midst of native woodland that they will conserve and expand.

Part of the project involves the sale of hand-crafted wooden items and non-timber forest products. But the community will also derive revenue by opening up portions of the natural woodland to the public – both for free recreation and for paid pursuits.

They will offer a zip line and adventure playground, and opportunities for outdoor recreation activities on the site. They will also offer courses and classes on foraging and woodland lore – den building classes for children, special wildlife events – and more. The woodland itself, rather than the yields it can provide, becomes the main "product." And the very act of preserving and enhancing the existing woodland means more people will want to visit and enjoy it over time.

Recreational activities, tours, classes, and workshops are just the beginning. A rich and biodiverse, relatively unspoiled native woodland or forest can also be an ecosystem that draws in people looking for a beautiful place to stay. (In a sustainable campsite, glamping location, or woodland cabin, for example.) And could also be a venue for sustainable weddings and other special events.

A standing, native, and natural woodland or forest has great value in ecological and social terms. But when you nurture and protect it, it could also add to the income from your land.