Fifty-six percent of forested lands in the US are privately owned, meaning that landscape-scale conservation requires coordination with private landowners. Planners and managers use policy tools such as tax policies, regulations, zoning, easements, and land acquisition to address these challenges. Forest property tax incentives—programs that lessen property taxes for forest owners—have been utilized since the early 1900s to enhance forest timber supplies. Yet until recently, scientists were unsure whether the policies encouraged ecosystem connectivity or not. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined connectivity between public forests and private forests enrolled in tax incentive programs. In an article published in Landscape and Urban Planning, they suggest that voluntary tax incentives are a powerful tool to encourage regional and ecosystem management on private land, yet such tax incentives could face challenges in the future.
Using a spatial analysis dataset of publicly and privately conserved land in Wisconsin, the researchers defined areas with few, larger forest patches as more connected than areas with many, smaller forest patches. The scientists discovered that forest tax incentive programs add to connectivity between conserved forests—both privately and publicly owned—in all regions of the state. Forest tax program enrollments tended to be more clustered with public forests than would be expected due to chance, even though forest tax programs were voluntary and untargeted. Yet, the statewide forest plan encouraged property-specific conservation rather than ecosystem level coordination.
Although the forest tax programs suggested future efforts for private-public coordination and stated that private forests provide public benefits, private forest ownership was often portrayed as a hindrance to landscape conservation goals. Yet, the researchers found evidence that public land managers could potentially work with private land owners in the future towards developing landscape level management to allow not just spatial connectivity, but administrative connectivity as well.
The researchers identify four obstacles that could hinder tax programs from realizing optimal forest connectivity and landscape management and solutions to tackle these challenges. First, tax incentives are a broad conservation tool that cannot target specific areas or regions that may be threatened. The authors suggest that non-enrolled private forest owners in areas where more forest connectivity may be environmentally important can be targeted with outreach or additional non-tax incentives.
Second, tax programs have a limited and voluntary time duration which could prevent long-term forest protection as compared to other conservation tools such as land acquisition or easements. The authors recommend that Wisconsin’s tax incentive, which requires a 25 or 50 year commitment for enrollment, should be used as a model for achieving longer-term conservation compared to states without commitment requirements.
Third, tax incentive programs often require hiring foresters and management plan assessors. These positions are often at the whims of state budgets. The authors suggest capacity building to increase program enrollment over time.
Lastly, the authors suggest that legislative changes may be required to move traditional timber production-based policies to ecosystem-management based policies. America’s preference for decentralized and local land management could make this politically difficult. The authors suggest that landscape connectivity can be achieved through administrative discretion and incrementally making changes within the confines of current law.
Although some barriers to maintaining and expanding programs exist, tax incentives can be a framework to address landscape level management.