Million Acres


Q: What public policy issue does research suggest could have the greatest impact on the threat of parcelization of forest land?

We’ll get to the answer to this question in a moment. First let me tell you that it’s been a very busy few weeks for Vital Forests/Vital Communities, and like the leaves outside my window, the dust is still settling.

I’ll save for another day stories about other September events including the Forestry and the BioEconomy Conference, Goods from the Woods, and the Governor’s announcement of the signing of the second Minnesota Forest Legacy Partnership conservation easement on 51,000 acres – nearly 80 square miles – of Itasca and Koochiching County lands. Whew! Instead I will focus these few lines on some reflections about the September 12-13 Family Forest Stewardship Conference – Sustaining Our Commitment, Advancing the Agenda.

Over 100 folks joined us at Saint John’s to check in on the status of our collective efforts to advance the goal we agreed to in 2006 of increasing by one million the number of acres of family forest land under sustainable management. We have agreed to use stewardship plans as a measurable indicator to which we can hold ourselves accountable.

Participants spent the morning hearing about work accomplished over the past year, and the afternoon strategizing on where to focus our efforts going forward. Presentations and other details about the conference are on the conference home page, including some nifty images of Tom Kroll’s Oak Management Tour.

Conference proceedings , ably drafted by Dovetail Partners, Inc.’s Katie Fernholz, summarize the Action Agenda proposed by participants. These plans are more than aspirational “nice-to-do” ideas. Rather, the key players in getting this work done – Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Forestry Association, University of Minnesota Extension, and others – have reviewed these specific steps and explicitly signed on to walk their talk. Check out the proceedings to see how you can plug in. Together, we can continue to make real progress toward this important goal.

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Click on the image to participate in our Getting to the Next Million Acres Poll

Okay – now for the answer to the public policy question I posed at the beginning of my post.

Research suggests that health care could have the greatest impact on the threat of parcelization of forest land. This surprising finding came out during the keynote given by Catherine Mater of the Pinchot Institute. Catherine spoke about her not-yet-published research results on what offspring of current private forestland owners think about maintaining their family forestlands.

Catherine MaterCatherine’s research shows strong concerns among the next generation of landowners about the rising costs of health care and their ability to handle unexpected medical expenses. In fact, dealing with catastrophic health costs is cited most often by family forest land owners as the number one reason that prompts them to sell their forest land. Many times these sales result in parcelization, which in turn fuels forest fragmentation. (A study of these trends in Itasca County was recently released by the University of Minnesota’s Mike Kilgore et al. Click here to access the study)

Tree SnakeAs the U.S. Forest Service’s Brett Butler, another keynote presenter, observed in his commentary on Catherine’s presentation, it is reasonable to consider that the single most important public policy opportunity to address the threat of parcelization may be universal health care!

That gives all of us something to think about as the next Presidential election cycle heats up.

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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.

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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!

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.