Do your property taxes seem high?

It’s the start of a new year, and with that comes tax time. That property tax bill probably arrived in December, and as a woodland owner you are potentially facing a larger bill than is comfortable. Many states have realized the importance of family owned woodlands for clean air and water and good paying jobs, and offer landowners incentives to manage their woods. In Wisconsin, this comes in the form of a program that reduces your tax burden in exchange for actively managing your land. The program is called Managed Forest Law, or commonly called MFL for short.

In the last budget cycle, the MFL program went through some big changes. Rather than highlight the changes, this article is going to focus on the basics of MFL, or what is involved if you choose to enroll your woodland into the program. Folks that are familiar with the program will see the recent changes here. For the rest, what follows will help you make a decision as to whether this might be a good option for you.

Let’s start with determining whether your property is even eligible for the MFL program. To begin with, you don’t have to enter an entire land holding into the program. At a minimum, you must enter 20 contiguous acres that are under one ownership. Of the acres that you wish to enter, 80% of those acres must be covered with trees. The acreage cannot have any buildings or improvements (accessory buildings or landscaping), and it can’t be tax delinquent.  There are a few other minor details that need to be fulfilled, but if you’ve gotten this far, then you are probably eligible.

If your land is eligible, then let’s look at the requirements to enter and remain in the program. The very first requirement, to enter the program, is that you must have a management plan. The plan needs to be prepared by a certified MFL plan writer, and the DNR has cost-share dollars available to help landowners pay for a plan. When you apply to enter into MFL, you, with the assistance of a forester, will submit a management plan along with a $30 fee.

As I mentioned earlier, to participate in the MFL program, there will be requirements of you to fulfill the purpose of the MFL program, namely: “Together with landowner objectives, the law incorporates timber harvesting, wildlife management, water quality and recreation to maintain a healthy and productive forest.” If you never want to see a timber sale on your property, go into this process asking a lot of questions. The program is intended to manage forests in a sustainable manner, thus, if the acreage (or a portion of that acreage) is considered ready to harvest, your plan will require a timber sale at some point. There are a few other “mandatory” practices, such as planting trees or controlling invasive plants, but mandatory only on those lands to which that applies. In other words, you may only have to control invasive plants if they will affect your land’s ability to grow trees.

There is one other major decision you will have to think about if you are interested in the MFL program, and that is whether you will enroll your property as “open” or “closed”. The biggest selling point for many landowners, is the tax rates. If you enroll woodland as “open”, you will pay $2.14/ac in property taxes for any land enrolled in the program. If you enroll woodland as “closed”, you will pay $10.68/ac in property taxes for any land enrolled. If you enroll your land as “open” (and get a more generous tax break), you are allowing the public access to your property “only for hunting, fishing, hiking, sight-seeing and cross country skiing”, and only by foot. Landowners have protections afforded to them in the Recreation Use Statute, also known as the berry picker law, so that they are not held liable if someone gets injured on their property. A landowner can enter a maximum of 320 acres, per municipality, in the program as “closed”.

Beyond the lower tax rate, there are a number of benefits to you for enrolling in the program. Many landowners are afraid of damaging or somehow negatively impacting their property or woods. It is a sacred place to many to experience family time, hunting, and outdoor recreation. By working with a forester and the DNR, you have access to resources to help you make beneficial decisions for your woods. The consulting forester, that you hire to write your management plan, works for you. They are there to answer your questions and help you understand your woods and help you achieve your goals. Additionally, with the simple check of a box, your management plan is certified by the American Tree Farm System and the Forest Stewardship Council, to ensure your plan includes sustainable and responsible practices.

I’ve heard some fears from landowners that someone else will be making decisions for their woodland. Yes, there are requirements if you want to be in the program, BUT it is still your property. You can negotiate what is in your plan so long as it fits the broad expectations. Also, you are not obliged to follow the requirements of the program and plan until you sign it; if you don’t agree with it, don’t sign it.

If Managed Forest Law seems like a program that you would benefit from, you can check out more details in the official DNR program summary. You can also contact the DNR forester in the county where your property is located for more information. DNR foresters can walk your woods and tell you what is eligible for entry, can answer general questions, and can give you some general expectations for a management plan… all without expectations that you enter the MFL program. To find your DNR forester, go to this website and select the county of your woodland.