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.