Virginia Board of Forestry

Senate Joint Resolution 75 –Incentives for Private Landowners to Preserve their Forestland
Summary of Web-based Written Comments

Written comments were solicited on the Department of Forestry website and were accepted by mail and e-mail. Writers were asked to identify themselves, the county in which they live, whether they attended a public meeting and which meeting if they did, and whether and how many acres of forestland they owned. Respondents were asked two trigger questions: What factors affect their decision to maintain forestland; and what incentives would be most effective in encouraging forestland retention.

Demographics

Fifty-two written comments were received, 51 from individuals and one from the Valley Conservation Council. Comments were received from 35 counties covering most sections of Virginia. Notably absent were comments from the most urbanized counties. Fourteen (26%) writers attended public meetings. Forty-one (80.3%) of 51 individuals are forestland owners with acreage ranging from 1 to 2,140 acres and averaging 134 acres.

Reasons for maintaining forestland

All most every respondent cited some form of environmental reason for owning forestland: water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, recreation, aesthetics or protection. Several, particularly larger landowners, also cited economic reasons: timber income, investment value or tax incentives.

On balance the issues driving small forestland ownership are the environmental values of the forests, rather than the “traditional” working forest values.

Incentives for Preserving Forestland

There were five broad categories of incentives: financial; stewardship; management/logging; conservation easements; and the role of the Department of Forestry. Some suggestions spanned more than one category and have been placed in the most relevant.

Financial

Tax incentives were the most frequently cited method of encouraging forestland retention and maintenance. Specific tax incentives ranged from not taxing forestland at all to allowing full deductibility of management expenses to providing tax credits for forestland owners. Particular emphasis was placed on property taxes. Many writers favored use-value taxation and several suggested simplifying and expanding agricultural and forestal districts. Where arguments were provided, they were generally couched in terms of forestland owners providing valuable services to all citizens and therefore should receiving some financial reward for doing so.

Eight writers cited the need to support markets for timber. Specific suggestions centered on small diameter logs and wood chips. One person wrote in favor of promoting wood as a bio-fuel alternative to fossil fuels.

Stewardship

Several writers cited the need for additional education in forest ecology and sustainable forestry practices. One writer suggested more research on ecosystem services. Most of the stewardship comments focused on programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that would provide cost sharing and technical assistance for replanting hardwood forests for environmental values rather than for timber.

Management/Logging

The main theme in this area was the promotion of sustainable forestry through education and technical assistance. In particular people asked for information on certified loggers and small scale logging companies that would provide thinning or selective cutting rather than clear cutting. There was also some concern expressed over the notion that cutting trees is always a bad thing. One person also mentioned the issue of conflicts between local and state laws that affect an individual’s right to cut timber. Responses in this category also cited the need for mandatory Best Management Practices for logging operations and stiff associated penalties. Several people suggested ending subsidies for pine plantations. Finally, three people cited the need to fully fund the RT program to provide cost sharing for replanting timberland.

Conservation Easements

Conservation easements and purchase of development rights programs were the second most named method of promoting forestland retention. A few individuals suggested greater state support with the expenses associated with conferring and maintaining a conservation easement and one person suggested making all such expenses tax deductible. Associated with conservation easements, people suggested the support of land trusts and promotion of Agricultural and Forestal Districts. It was also suggested that field foresters be trained in the use of existing tools for forestland conservation and that state university forestry curricula be changed to address the issues associated with small noncommercial forestland ownership.

The Role of the Department of Forestry

This was a smaller category than the others already mentioned, but came up enough to be included. The main issue cited was that the VDOF is inadequately staffed to deal with the current reality of small noncommercial forestland ownership. Associated with this, there were two suggestions that VDOF is too closely associated with loggers and mills and should refocus itself on conservation, the environment and forest retention. One person suggested moving the VDOF to the natural resources secretariat.

Other suggestions for promoting forestland retention and maintenance were acknowledgement of landowner efforts, not relying on the reforestation tax, limiting subdivisions, limiting density, state assistance with local land use planning, that a tool be developed to help local land use planners understand the value of forestland in their communities, and staffing the Office of Land Conservation in DCR.

Along with suggestions for incentives and programs most of the writers wrote in support of considering the ecosystem services values of forests –air and water quality, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty. As one person put it; “We should be looking into values based upon forest rather than just the value of trees as fodder for junk mail.” This theme pervaded most of the written comments.