Virginia Department of Forestry
Senate Joint Resolution 75 - Incentives for Private Landowners
to Preserve their Forestland
Executive Summary

The long-term sustainability of our woodlands and working landscapes depend heavily on the working relationships between private non-industrial landowners, public officials, and forestry community. Forest land loss in Virginia is over 20,000 acres per year resulting in decreased economic return for landowners and reduced environmental benefits for the Commonwealth’s citizens.

During the 2004 General Assembly, Senator Patricia Ticer, Fairfax, Virginia, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 75 (SJR 75) calling for a legislative study on …”incentives to private landowners to hold and preserve their forest land”and charged the Virginia Board of Forestry (BOF) with this study responsibility. As a part of SJR 75, the Board of Forestry is directed to …”seek comments and recommendations from citizens across Virginia”.

Toward this end, the Board of Forestry (BOF), conducted 8 public meetings across the state during the last half of July, 2004. The general locations and dates held are given below:

  • Northern Valley: July 13
  • Northern Virginia: July 14
  • Southwest Virginia: July 20
  • Roanoke: July 21
  • Southside Virginia: July 22
  • Tidewater: July 27
  • Richmond: July 28
  • Charlottesville: July 29

Each session provided landowners and stakeholders with a background presentation about the forest land conservation issue and offered the opportunity for comment regarding forest preservation incentives and alternatives. Across the 8 public meetings, 232 people attended and 89 offered public comments. An additional 52 individuals submitted comments through the DOF website.

At the 8 public meetings, one trigger question was asked that led to the 83 comments. The question was what are the factors, concerns, and issues that affect your decision to preserve forest land? During each session, both written session summaries and voice recordings were taken. A review of the public comments yielded the following categories in response to the trigger question: Incentives, Estate Taxation, Property Taxation, Conservation Easements, Local Ordinances, Forest Management and Forestry Programs, Education, the Department of Forestry, and Other. Not all of the 8 sessions contained elements from all the categories but those categories mentioned above were consistently discussed during the meetings.

Those 9 categories contained common themes which are summarized below by those categories. The “Other” category contains information not directly attributable to any of the previous 8 categories.

Incentives

This category represents more general comments about basic incentives for forest land preservation. Some of the other categories can be considered “incentives” also such as property taxation relief. One common philosophical theme mentioned during the public comment period centered on how society values forest land and “forest spaces” and we should value it higher and create better incentives to preserve. More practically, many ideas centered on increasing or directing tax dollars to fund and compensate landowner incentive programs such as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR). Also, the relationship between technical assistance, outreach, and protection was stated as an incentive for landowners to preserve land.

Estate Taxation

The dominant theme in this category was to repeal the Estate Tax (inheritance tax) to ease the passing of forest land from one generation to another. This tax fuels the necessity to sell land due to the high cost incurred at this transitional stage of land ownership.

Property Taxation

A very strong theme throughout the 8 sessions was a consistent, statewide land use tax program. By this, participants meant reduced land taxes for forest land. Some more detailed comments suggested that only lands with suitable management plans should be eligible for such property tax relief. Additional comments regarding property tax relief stated that only ecologically functioning forests should be considered.

Conservation Easements

Conservation easements were mentioned at each public meeting as a strong tool for preserving forest land from conversion to a non-forest use. Conservation easements are legal agreements the landowners sign that remove the possibility, usually in perpetuity, of their forest land converting to non-forest. This agreement carries with the deed of the property.

At this point in time, there are limited programs that pay landowners for the easement value. Comments ranged from offering stronger tax incentives for easements to upgrading state programs to fund easement purchase or costs associated with easements. Also, many comments wanted the state to consider easements of less than perpetuity and to ensure that forest management activities could still be carried out under an easement.

Local Ordinances

Two basic themes ran across the 8 sessions. First was the unwanted proliferation of local ordinances that were confusing when moving from county to county and in conflict with state law (i.e. Right to Practice Forestry legislation). Second was the idea that local ordinances can cause a disincentive to owning forest land by limiting management options through harvesting or other management restrictions such as a visual buffer ordinance.

Forest Management and Forestry Programs

This category received a wide variety of responses with several themes apparent. The first major theme was the recognition of the private, non-industrial landowner to manage their land as they wished and to not be impeded by burdensome regulation. (Right to Practice Forestry). Conversely was the minority opinion of the theme of anti-clearcutting and practicing “restorative forestry”. The comments defined “restorative forestry” as “taking the worst and leaving the best” during harvesting operations.

A third theme across the comments was fulfilling the mandate of the Reforestation of Timberlands Program which calls for matched funding from the General Assembly equal to the tax brought in. This has been sporadic through the years.

Other comments seen frequently were increasing the number of foresters in the Department of Forestry so forest stewardship planning could increase, acquiring more federal Forest Legacy conservation funding, including conservation incentives for forestland other than pine plantations and restricting harvesting in riparian areas.

Education

The related themes of public and landowner education were common among several of the sessions. One group of responses spoke to the overall need of increasing public education about the value of forests in our school systems and that these natural resource management concepts are not taught nowadays. A couple of comments actually spoke to the wrong message being sent about forest harvesting, i.e. should not be done.

Private, non-industrial landowner education was discussed many times with the theme being to significantly increase efforts to educate the growing number of landowners in Virginia. Educational efforts should center on forest science, forest values, and available programs.

The Virginia Department of Forestry

Two themes emerged from the sessions regarding the Department of Forestry. First was the need to increase staffing to upgrade the level of service for private, non-industrial landowners. The second theme was to upgrade the level of information available to landowners including the website and more traditional methods. Other less frequently seen comments were to have the Department be more customer-friendly and to include as many native, non-invasive species in the nursery catalog as possible.

Other

Many diverse comments were seen in this category. Some of these comments could have been placed in one of the other categories but did not exactly fit. No real themes emerged but some comments were seen more than once. The first of these comments is the recognition that forests provide both economic and quality of life benefits and there is a need to expand markets and forest products, particularly for low grade hardwood. One example cited was the possibility of using chips for fuel.

Another group of comments revolved around the idea of landowner liability. This was cited in reference to development bumping up against forestland and the need to continue the ability to conduct management options such as aerial spraying.

One other set of comments centered on the idea of logger certification and environmental protection. Other comments mentioned the following topics: Government’s role in forestry, telemarketing programs taking aim at landowners to sell their timber, tobacco buy-out will lead to lots of land put on the market, focusing research funding to Virginia Tech.