August 2007


Q: What do the Ruffed Grouse Society, The Conservation Fund, Minnesota Forestry Association, Forest Capital Partners, and 26 other organizations have in common?

A: All have signed-on as sponsors of the upcoming Family Forest Stewardship Conference: Sustaining Our Commitment, Advancing the Agenda. If you’re planning to attend the conference and haven’t registered yet, please take a moment and do so now by visiting the conference web page.

Family Forest Stewardship Conference Logo
I’ve often heard it said that while most family forest land owners don’t identify timber management as a top priority for owning their land, most do end up harvesting timber for one reason or another. Sometimes the reason is financial, and sometimes it’s because the forest just starts to fall apart and obviously needs help. Like a garden, forests need tending to be productive and stay healthy, especially absent natural fire regimes. After lots of thought and planning, my brothers and I have contracted for a harvest next week of about 300 cords of over-mature aspen off our 40 acres in Lake Ponto Township in southern Cass County. With the help of our private consulting forester, we’ve used the DNR’s Field Guide to the Native Plan Communities of Minnesota to identify the land’s native plant community used that information to plan our harvest and regeneration strategy. And so, despite the “timber shock” we’re likely to experience when we see the woods again in the immediate aftermath of the cut (see MyMinnesotaWoods.org for a good discussion and images of what you can expect post-harvest), I can feel confident I’m being a good steward of our woods.

Helping more of Minnesota’s family forest land owners be good stewards is the goal of the Family Forest Stewardship conference Blandin Foundation is sponsoring September 12-13 at Saint John’s University. More than thirty other organizations have joined us to embrace Vital Forests/Vital Communities’ ambitious goal to increase by one million the number of acres of family forestland in Minnesota under sustainable management by 2015. The work accomplished towards this goal in the past year is summarized in this Pre-Conference Backgrounder.

As we come down the home stretch to the conference, our hearty planning committee, including Dovetail Partners’s Katie Fernholz, U of M Extension Educator Eli Sagor, DNR’s Gary Michael, and MFA’s Bruce ZumBahlen, are nailing down the final details of what promises to be a lively meeting.

Besides foot tapping to the old time music of the Eelpout Stringers and touring Saint John’s Arboretum with one of my favorite Minnesota foresters, Tom Kroll, we’ll hear Pinchot Institute’s Catherine Mater and USFS Analyst Brett Butler discuss their ongoing research and new findings about what how most effectively to connect with family forest land owners. Most importantly, we’ll discuss – with your input – how to advance our agenda to improve stewardship on the 40 percent of Minnesota forest lands owned by families like yours and mine.

We hope you’ll join us!

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At last week’s community celebration of the newly signed working forest easement on Sugar Hills – 1,660 acres of unique northern hardwood forests – Senator Tom Saxhaug reminisced to the crowd about the handshake deal he made years ago as county commissioner with Jack Rajala that sealed the Rajala company’s commitment to the people of Itasca County to be good stewards of that special tract.

Sugar Hills Celebration

Lots of hometown folks including Elmer Cone, Mark Johnson, John Almendinger, Catherine McLynn, Bud Stone, and foundation trustees Marian Barcus, Jim Benson, and Mike Johnson — to name just a few with whom I had a chance to visit — and some big wigs from St. Paul and DC — like DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten, Congressman Jim Oberstar, and USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey — came out to the site, meticulously maintained in the winter by the Northern Light Noridic Ski Club, and on this summer day beautifully decked out with a tent and banners by a host of volunteers under the able direction of Trust for Public Land’s Becca Nash.

In his remarks, Rajala Companies President John Rajala told the audience the story of how Becca and her colleagues at TPL, and other members of the Forest Legacy Partnership, had worked doggedly with him and his family to craft the working forest easement that will allow the Rajalas to make good on Jack’s handshake in perpetuity. Jim Oberstar reached for lyricism when he told the crowd that their success in protecting this forest was a beacon for a better future.

It was a beautiful celebration of a visionary and successful public-private partnership on a beautiful day in a beautiful woods, graced by good fellowship, good feelings, and, at the end, by the sweet sound of voices lifted together in song as Mary and Don LaPlant offered musical accompaniment to America the Beautiful.

Sugar Hills Celebration

TNC’s Itasca Field Representative Art Norton led tours afterwards. If you weren’t able to be with us, email Art if you’d like to arrange your own tour.

It was a great day for Itasca Co., for Minnesota, and for future Minnesotans. I know that for sure because TNC’s Tom Landwehr took a call while at the podium from our future generations – calling to register their thanks.

Family Forest Stewardship Conference Logo

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.