In Defense of Trees

Among a host of ill-conceived bills during the last legislative session, there was one that would affect Iowa’s landscape 100 years from now. Senate File 5 proposed eliminating the property tax incentive for forested lands that are currently exempted under the Forest and Fruit Tree Reservation Act.

The bill did not advance out of committee but the issue is far from dead. It will undoubtedly come up again in the next session. In fact, as you read this, I will have recently met with representatives from County Conservation departments, Boards of Supervisors, and Assessors from across the state to draft recommendations to the legislature regarding the program. Whether those recommendations will be considered or not is another story.

The Forest and Fruit Tree Reservation Act, otherwise known as the Forest Reserve program allows landowners with at least two contiguous acres of forested land to qualify for a 100 percent property tax exemption on those acres. First passed way back in 1906, the program was designed “to induce landowners to hold their poorer lands in timber not only as a source of farm income but also for erosion control, watershed protection and game cover.”

Basically, it was an incentive to preserve and hopefully grow the amount of forested land in the state. As we’re all aware, Iowa isn’t exactly known for its vast expanses of forests. Of the 36 million total acres in the state, only about three million of them are forested. For comparison, when Iowa first became a state, 6.7 million acres were covered in timber. Considering the rate at which Iowa went from being covered in prairie, wetlands, and forests to the agricultural behemoth it became, it’s little surprise that lawmakers at the turn of the 20th century wanted to create some sort of incentive to preserve its forested lands. 

Further Reading: Iowa DNR Forestry

It seems to have worked. According to SF5’s accompanying fiscal note, there are 793,000 acres enrolled in the program statewide, or just over a quarter of the state’s entire forest acreage. The vast majority of those acres are located on steep slopes or in floodplains – areas not well suited to row crop production but which are well suited to a host of ecological benefits including erosion control, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration, not to mention the aesthetic value trees contribute to the landscape.

So what’s the motivation for repealing the program? As if you need to ask.

Money, of course.

While the state has been keen to throw billions in tax breaks at multinational corporations, it really doesn’t like the supposed giveaway it offers its own citizens for protecting their trees (note: as of 2003, about 97 percent of Forest Reserve lands were owned by Iowa residents). SF5’s fiscal note estimates that acres enrolled in the Forest Reserve program cost about $11.5 million in property tax exemptions. Repealing the exemption would route that money back to counties to be used for county expenses like schools and roads and such.

But in return for such generosity, per the bill, the state would cut more than $2 million out of the money it gives to counties for school aid. Everybody wins, right? Everybody except the landowners that protect those forest resources, the state’s $4 billion forestry industry and the 15,000 employees it supports, and the hunters that utilize those woods and their multi-billion-dollar economic impact. Not to mention the immeasurable ecological value of such protected acres in a state that leads the nation in soil loss, nutrient loading, and poor water quality.

The other justification I hear is that the program sometimes gets abused by rural housing developers that buy up tracts of land, carve out five acre lots on which they build McMansions, then enroll the remaining acres in Forest Reserve, thereby avoiding what would be vastly increased property taxes.

That, I agree, is not what the program was intended to do.

It’s typical of politicians to see dollar signs and then find things like program abuses to justify jumping to a political extreme with complete disregard for the law’s original intent. The Forest Reserve program wasn’t created as a giveaway to rural landowners. It sure wasn’t intended to be pitted against education funding. It was put in place to protect a dwindling and limited forest resource that 113 years later still receives few, if any, other protections or incentives for preservation.

Could the program use some updating? Possibly. But only if doing so considers the long-term benefit of the resource, and not just the short-term benefit of state or county budgets.

We’ve grown a lot of trees in the century-plus since this law was enacted. Many trees from then are likely still standing today. We should keep that perspective in mind when we consider legislation that will literally affect our landscape 100 years from now.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

Like these posts? Subscribe here to get future Outdoor Executive Dad posts sent right to your inbox.