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Do property tax benefits for forest landowners work?

New review paper suggests they aren’t always effective

a stand of pine trees
Active management includes planting or cutting trees, controlling specific plants or animals, and conducting prescribed fire. USDA Forest Service photo by Jim Guldin.

Every state in the U.S. has a program that lowers property taxes for people who enroll their private forestlands. But the programs may not work, according to a new review paper by USDA Forest Service research economist Greg Frey.

Frey organized the review around two broad goals that the programs might have: keeping forests as forests and promoting active management.

He found that enrolled lands were slightly more likely to be kept as forests. But the effect was weak, and there was not enough evidence to say if the programs led to more active management.

“Furthermore, the two goals can be at loggerheads,” says Frey. “A policy that is effective at keeping forests will likely maximize participation with fewer rules, reviews, and restrictions. But promoting active management may well need more rules.” Requiring forest management plans and conformance reports promotes active management, suggests the study.

In the South, nearly 90% of forests are privately owned. The benefits of forests are not limited by property lines. For example, forested land owned by individuals and states is a source of clean drinking water for approximately 55 million people in the South.

For the review study, Frey synthesized 76 publications, and conducted a quantitative analysis of 32. The work builds upon previous efforts to evaluate preferential forest property tax programs, understand characteristics of people who enroll, and explore existing markets for ecosystem services.

Read the article in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. For more information, email Greg Frey at