This summer I am working with others to plan a fall conference to check in on progress towards an ambitious goal to increase by one million the number of acres of family forest land under stewardship by 2015. This goal, along with a four-part action plan, was first articulated and adopted in May of last year at the “Next Million Acres” conference held at Saint John’s University.
On September 12-13, we will reconvene at Saint John’s for Family Forest Stewardship: Sustaining our Commitment, Advancing the Agenda to share news and updates on progress, and strategize for the months ahead. I hope you’ll join us.
We heard at the 2006 conference that success in improving stewardship on more family forest land will require a comprehensive approach that addresses three key challenges:
- Engaging family forest landowners
- Protecting the forest land base from development and parcelization and
- Assuring stewardship with competent and meaningful advice and assistance.
Conference participants identified opportunities to modify Minnesota’s property tax classification system as a possible tool for achieving progress on all three issues. A February 2006 report by the MN Department of Revenue, Assessment and Classifications Practices Report – Rural Woodlands, provided an opening by recommending the creation of a new property tax classification called “Rural Vacant Lands” (to include 2b timber land), along with a lower rate for this new class than for developed lands.
Since last May’s meeting, Saint John’s Arboretum Director Tom Kroll and long-time MFA leader Bruce ZumBahlen have taken a leadership role in coordinating efforts to improve the Department of Revenue’s recommendations from a forest stewardship perspective, and to promote their adoption by the 2007 legislature.
These efforts bore some fruit, though as is often the case with legislative politics, it’s been two steps forward, one step back.
Thanks to leadership by Senators Bakk and Saxhaug, with support and encouragement from MFA members and others, the final 2007 Omnibus Tax bill (HF 2268) forwarded to the Governor did indeed include provisions to create a new property tax classification for certain unplatted rural lands, including undeveloped forests. Under the proposed changes, the subjective requirement that undeveloped lands be taxed at their “highest and best use” was removed.
Furthermore, properties under this classification would have been taxed at a reduced net class rate from 1.0 to .65 percent if they:
- Consisted of no less than 10 and no more than 1920 acres. 10 acres aligns the 2b classification with the 2a classification for agricultural lands, easing the demands of implementation on county assessors. 1920 acres aligns with the cap stipulated by SFIA.
- Were managed under a state-approved Forest Stewardship Program;
- Were not enrolled in the SFIA (to prevent “double dipping”).
Unfortunately, this language was lost when the Omnibus Tax Bill was vetoed by Governor Pawlenty on May 30, 2007. The passage of this language in both the House and Senate portends well for the proposal’s future, and looking to the 2008 session, supporters will have an opportunity to build on this agreement as well as to push for additional improvements. Tom Kroll and others have targeted a number of changes that more effectively serve as an incentive for good stewardship and against forest land parcelization. These include:
- Reduce the new classification rate to .55 percent. This provides a greater incentive to landowners to develop a Forest Stewardship plan. It also aligns the 2b class rate with the 2a rate for agricultural lands.
- Raise the bar of eligibility to 20 contiguous acres. This matches other family forest standards, such as the Forest Stewardship Program and SFIA, assures that the most valuable acres for conservation are targeted, and reduces the amount of tax shift.
- Account for the needs of county assessors regarding split-classifications (breaking up of a tax parcel) done to break off a cabin.
Click here for a fuller analysis of the Department of Revenue’s report and recommended modifications, from a forest stewardship perspective.
We are working with the indefatigable Tom Kroll to develop opportunities to build and demonstrate to legislators broad support for these proposed changes.
If passed in 2008, supporters should prepare for a welcome challenge: the need to ensure that Minnesota’s professional forestry community has adequate capacity to meet the anticipated wave of new requests for family forest land assistance.
We’ll hear more about these issues at the September 12-13 Family Forest Stewardship Conference. I invite you to register for the conference today.