By Noah Gleason-Hart
Logging is our most dramatic opportunity to create change, either destructive or restorative in our woodlots, so we focus much of our low-impact forestry work on promoting careful harvest practices. However, commercial logging is a relatively infrequent event on a given property, perhaps every 10 to 15 years. A landowner may see only one or two harvest cycles during their ownership, and, in the intervening years, it’s easy to push management activities to the backburner. Instead, I would encourage you to use this time to consider long-term decisions and actions that could increase your forest’s security and financial sustainability while increasing the likelihood of better harvest outcomes in the future.
Maintain Property Lines
Regardless of your management objectives, maintaining your property lines is one of the most important things you can do as a landowner. You can’t manage what you don’t know that you own and clearly marked boundaries protect you from having a neighbor inadvertently cut your trees.
In Maine, property lines are commonly marked with blazes, where a section of bark is removed from the line tree or witness tree, or with rectangular paint marks in bright colors. As a landowner, you cannot establish a boundary line if there is no existing evidence or blazing – you need a licensed surveyor for that. You can, however, refresh existing blazes and repaint.
Before refreshing one of the boundaries of my partner’s family’s woodlot last year, I invited the abutting landowner to walk the line with me as I repainted it. They could see that I was strictly following the old line, which should head off any future conflicts, and I talked about our management philosophy on the farm so they won’t be surprised if they hear the sound of chainsaws next door. Plus, it was a great chance to meet my neighbor!
For more specific information about the process, check out the “Boundary Line Information” fact sheet from the Maine Forest Service.
Work with a Licensed Forester
Even though your next harvest may be far in the future, consider looking for a private consulting forester now. (Maine Forest Service provides a stewardship forester list.) A forester can do more than just oversee timber sales. They can also help you understand the health and potential of your woodlot, define your long-term objectives and connect you with programs that financially support your stewardship activities.
Your forester is your agent and should help you meet your objectives for your woodlot; take the time to find someone whose management philosophy and approach fit with yours. Interview more than one. Ask if you can read a management plan that they’ve written. You may even want to consider asking if you can walk a woodlot that the forester has managed.
Once you’ve chosen a forester, consider having them write a management plan for your lot.
Management plans are generally updated every 10 years. They define your management goals for your woodlot, assess the forest’s current condition and outline how you can meet your goals based on current forest conditions. The most comprehensive plans combine rigorous data collection, land-use history, market imperatives and a deep understanding of forest ecology into a living document you can use to inform your decisions and steer you towards your long-term goals.
Your forester can also help you apply for funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to help cover forest management activities costs. NRCS funding can fund a management plan, subsidize thinning and crop tree release, and support invasive plant control. Applying for and receiving NRCS funding takes time, and you need to plan at least a year in advance of any work you’d like to carry out, but it is worth it. The annual deadline for application is in the late summer or early fall, so now is the perfect time to learn more about available programs and the application process.
Consider Enrolling in a Current Use Tax Program
Over the long term, land ownership is expensive. Property taxes in Maine, including on your woodlot, are based on a fair market assessment of what your land would be worth if it were used in a way that maximizes its financial value. Even on a high-quality site, the returns from the careful management of trees can’t provide the same financial returns as development. In practice, paying taxes based on a fair market evaluation can be a real financial obstacle to landowners who would like to keep their land forested.
Thankfully, several state programs exist that base the assessment of your land on its current use – i.e., growing trees – rather than market value. Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Program is an excellent fit if you have at least 10 acres of forested land and your primary goal is the production of commercial forest products. The program attaches a value to each acre of land based on species composition – softwood or hardwood – and the county where your woodlot is located. In counties with significant development potential, this can significantly lower your tax bill. For example, in York County, softwood stands are valued at $429 an acre – substantially lower than a market valuation of the same acre.
If you are not interested in managing primarily for forest product production, you may want to consider the Open Space Program. Enrollment offers a valuation percentage reduction based on the way you use the property. For example, permanent protection provides a 30% decrease in your valuation; public access, a 25% reduction; and managed forest, a 10% reduction. These deductions are stackable, so if your land fits all three of the above categories, you could see a 65% reduction in your tax bill. (Visit the Maine Revenue Service’s website for more information on current land use programs.)
It is important to note that enrollment in both programs is intended to be permanent, and withdrawal from the program carries significant penalties, so consider enrollment carefully. Enrollment in either program may also lower your property’s resale value should you decide to sell, but it is also a meaningful first step to making sure the next stewards of the property are similarly committed to continued forest stewardship.
Now that you’re covered from head to foot in boundary paint, you have cramps in your hands from all the emails you’ve sent to your forester, and your head is spinning from filling out NRCS forms, don’t forget why you have land in the first place. Get out there and explore! Consider making a daily practice of walking in your woods. Can you identify all the tree species in your woodlot? If you can identify all the tree species, can you identify all of the understory shrubs? How about naming all the bird songs you hear? The exciting thing about forest ecology is that there’s always another layer to uncover. Most importantly, you may find that a greater understanding of the complexity of forests could alter the management decisions you make in exciting and profound ways.