Forest Stewardship Program Rules Published: What do they mean?
Written by Steve Kallesser
Very recently, the DEP published its rules implementing the NJ Forest Stewardship Act. The Forest Stewardship Act was signed into law at the very end of the Corzine administration in order to give an alternative method of meeting the minimum income requirement for certain forested properties. The published rules are technically still a draft, although we hope that DEP will adopt them with only minor, immaterial changes.
In order to understand this new program, it is critical to know that it operates under the same constitutional amendment that provides for traditional Farmland Assessment. Thus, the only way of receiving an assessment other than one based on the highest and best use is by proving that you have at least 5 acres actively devoted to agriculture. Instead of creating a completely separate program from traditional Farmland Assessment, the authors of the Act allowed an alternative definition of how woodland could be considered "actively devoted to agriculture." The two-fold test of (1) agricultural activity and (2) agricultural income have been altered so that the second part (income) is waived if certain requirements are met.
Some organizations have been arguing that the Forest Stewardship program would bring an end to the need to manage private property. This is not the case, nor was it ever designed to be so. Rather, agricultural activity in the woods can continue to be met through such activities as vine and brush control, tree planting, thinning, pest control, and others. These do not need to be income-producing activities, however producing income from agricultural products is not prohibited (or even discouraged).
The largest obstacle to entering the program will be development of the Forest Stewardship Plan. This will require an update to any existing plan, even Forest Stewardship Plans developed under the federal program of the same name. At the present time, Gracie & Harrigan have identified certain clients who have agreed to serve as test cases in the development of Forest Stewardship Plans under these new rules. As soon as the rules are finalized, work will begin and based on those results, we will determine the extent to which this new program may benefit other clients.
However, we caution that the vast majority of our clients (and their forests) may likely be better served under traditional Farmland Assessment. This is because that program has a 50+ year history, and that history brings a large amount of regulatory predictability. Although we are very responsive to the needs and desires of our clients, at least for the short term we would not immediately recommend the new Forest Stewardship program to clients who are able to meet the minimum income requirement for traditional Farmland Assessment over the long term. This view may change after a few years of working with the new program.
Why Do We Do That? Forest stand improvement explained
Written by Steve Kallesser
Forest stand improvement is a very common recommendation under forest management plans that we write, but what is their ecological basis? Forest stand improvement thinnings can take many forms. Most commonly they are either thinning from below or crop tree management.
By thinning from below foresters are seeking to mimic low- to moderate-intensity wildfires. Such wildfires were common hundreds of years ago and helped shape the forest that we know today. By favoring thick-barked species such as oaks and pine, such fires helped develop native wildlife and plant communities and were an important ecological process. Of course your insurance company would likely not be happy if you started flicking matches into the forest. But by cutting thin-barked species, especially those with smaller diameters, we can get the same outcome using a slightly different process.
Crop tree management is slightly different in that we specifically identify high-quality and or high wildlife value trees that we wish to retain on the property. Next we identify lower-value trees (either economic value or ecological value) that are competing with the trees designated to remain. Some of those trees that are directly competing with residual trees are designated to be cut.
Both systems are designed to increase the health and vitality of the residual forest as well as the individual trees designated to remain. Since many of the residual trees are oaks and other thick-barked species, these methods correspond well to the outcomes of light- and medium-intensity wildfires. When such thinning is combined with competing understory vegetation control, we also have the added benefit of improving groundcover quality and improving the chances for developing new seedlings and saplings that should become the next generation of trees as the older trees die off.
As once-far-away disease problems become resident in northern and central New Jersey -- such as emerald ash borer and bacterial leaf scorch -- we are further reminded that our forests are dynamic, disturbance-dependent ecosystems. They will change whether we like it or not. By following the ecological processes that developed these forests in the first place we have our best chance for keeping them healthy in the long term.
Farmland Assessment Forms Amended: Add'l Info Needed
Written by Steve Kallesser
Starting with this filing season, some important changes have arrived on some of your farm tax forms. The Woodland Data Form (WD-1) is the form on which we report your agricultural and stewardship activities. Starting this year, we must report the last time that we were on-site and could verify that the activities reported on your Farmland Assessment forms actually occured.
We believe that this information will be used to prioritize Farmland Assessment compliance inspections by the DEP State Forestry Service and, possibly, by municipal tax assessors. We believe that reporting a last inspection date of more than two years from the date we certify the current form could serve as something of an "audit flag," and may place your property on a more expedited compliance inspection schedule.
This is why we have been working with clients this winter to minimize the number of properties that we have not been present on in more than two years. Please understand that it is important that we verify that reported activities have actually occured at least every two years.