By MIKE ZAGATA • Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal
New York’s 19 million acres of forests provide wood-fiber for the state’s $16 billion wood products industry – it’s larger than Maine’s, but we don’t often think of New York as being a leader in wood products.
Our forests also provide habitats for wildlife, clean air, clean water, Carbon sequestration and aesthetic enjoyment. In fact, interest in wildlife is the number one reason people own forest lands, and healthy, managed young forests sequester more carbon that older, mature forests.
The question then becomes, what do the people who own those forests that provide all these societal values get in return for properly stewarding them. The answer is simple – a high property-tax bill.
High property taxes are the number one driving force behind landowners being forced to sub-divide or fragment their forests. Simply put, they can’t afford to keep them intact.
Having to sub-divide them is bad for the forest products industry because it may make the remaining parcels either too small for a logger to harvest or lead to their being converted to houses or shopping malls.
Having that happen on a grand scale isn’t good for wildlife, clean air and clean water and carbon sequestration.
There is a rather simple solution, and our legislators enacted it decades ago when they included Section 480-a in the real Property Tax Law (480-a).
According to the current version of 480-a, a person who owns at least 50 acres, enrolls in the program and follows a DEC-approved management plan is entitled to an 80 percent reduction of their property taxes for the portion of their property that qualifies. That can be a huge help for people struggling to pay their property taxes.
However, the 480-a program, under the current regulations, can be complicated and punitive. Thus the state-wide enrollment rate is around 7 percent of the 700,000 people who own forestland. The number who own enough land to qualify is about 200,000.
Because the DEC recognizes that healthy, managed forests are critical to its mission, it is in the process of revising the regulations to provide more of an incentive and less of a “stick.”
If you visit the website, you can find the dates and locations for a series of public meetings being held around the State to solicit input into those revisions.
However, not all of 480-a’s shortcomings can be corrected via regulatory reform. Some require a legislative “fix.”
That’s where Senator Seward comes into play. He recently introduced, with support from the New York Forest Owner’s Association, S-4082 in the state Senate.
His Bill would reduce the number of acres for participation in 480-a from 50 to 25, thereby enabling far more people to participate. It also would allow for people who want to manage for wildlife, mushrooms and other forest-related product
s to include that activity in their forest management plan. The Senator’s bill would thus be good for our traditional forest products industry and good for our forests in general by enabling private forest landowners to keep their forests and manage them.
Doing so will assure we continue to benefit from abundant wildlife, clean air, clean water, recreational opportunities and carbon sequestration to combat climate change.
Mike Zagata, former DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and retired environmental executive for Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.