Coverage of forestlands tax break leaves out important details
We are compelled to provide information left out by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge in her discussion of the disconnect between private forestlands open to public hunting through the state’s Managed Forest Lands (MFL) program and the small likelihood of hunters being able to find and access these lands (“State program’s open hunting land tough to find,” Sept. 16, 2012).
Her report also was the basis for a Sept. 22 editorial in The Gazette, “State helping owners abuse land tax break.”
Where Rutledge’s article fell short was in not putting forestland property taxes in perspective, along with the cost, requirements and restrictions associated with the Managed Forest Law program.
Rutledge clearly spent a significant amount of time researching how Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Lands law is structured but came to the wrong conclusion in stating that tree farmers enrolled in the program receive “giant property tax breaks.”
Quite the opposite is true. Enrollment in the MFL program requires a formal management plan. A certified professional plan writer must write this plan. The cost to write a plan on a 40-acre parcel can exceed $1,000. Once enrolled, the forestland owner is required to comply with all aspects of the plan for the length of the agreement, which is typically 25 years. This includes the cost of all practices required in sustainable forest management. Plans are periodically audited to ensure compliance. While the tax rate (based on full fair-market value, not use value) is reduced during the enrollment period, the management plans do require periodic harvesting of the timber. Taxes are then paid on the timber harvested.
Cost of community services studies clearly show that property taxes paid on undeveloped lands actually subsidize local governments because such lands consume far fewer services than other land classifications.
The current MFL tax rate of $8 per acre (for lands closed to public hunting) exceeds average local government costs to provide services by four times. While the tax rate is higher for closed land, the landowner is restricted from any other sources of income to offset costs, including the ability to lease the land.
If we want to retain working forestlands to provide the raw materials our forest products industry needs, and to keep the clean air and water a forested landscape provides, then we need an updated MFL program that makes woodland property taxes both fair and affordable. The alternative is to see woodlands being developed or cleared to grow more profitable corn and soybeans and see the property tax bill drop to the average agricultural rate of $3.38 per acre.
Loren Hanson of Janesville is director and past president, and Richard Wedepohl of Madison is chairman of the Government Affairs Committee for the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association. Readers can contact Hanson at 608-289-0373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.