A woodland owner’s journey through the bureaucracy

‘Conservation is seldom convenient’ – Randy Newberg

I often think about this quote when talking with landowners looking for help with their woods. Whether help is answering a question about a tree, putting together a Forest Management Plan, or executing that plan, there are many different people, programs, and sources of information to consider.  

In extension forestry, our first recommendation is usually ‘talk to your local WDNR forester.’ I’ll reiterate that here and encourage you to check out this website outlining why a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) Forester should be your first call. 

However, the point of this blog is to remind you there are other professionals who can help, like your local District Conservationist (DC) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Bill Klase did a nice job summarizing what the NRCS can do for you in this blog post from January. If the NRCS is new to you, I encourage you to start there and then come back to this post. 

There are a lot of ways the NRCS can help woodland owners in Wisconsin, but it takes time and effort to work through the bureaucracy. My advice is consistent and simple, ask for help from the pros who get paid to help.  

To illustrate, let’s consider the story of a Wisconsin woodland owner navigating the conservation bureaucracy.

Joe has a 25-acre woodlot behind his house and a small corner of crop field he rents to a neighboring farmer. In a conversation with the farmer, the topic of government assistance programs came up. The farmer was enrolled in several payment programs with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) that helped keep his operation afloat in tough economic times. Despite not considering himself a ‘farmer,’ Joe called the local USDA service center, on his neighbors’ advice, to talk about programs for his woods.  

Joe had several interests in mind – improving hunting, lowering his tax bill, and making money with a timber sale. After a brief chat, the FSA referred Joe to their sister agency, the NRCS, so he could talk to the district conservationist (DC). Because the county Joe lives in is heavily wooded, his DC was familiar with programs for family forest owners.  If this is not the case in your county, encourage your DC to contact the NRCS state forester to fill in the gaps.  

After a few minutes chatting, both Joe and the DC agreed that he wanted to get into the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program. MFL would help Joe lower the property tax bill on his wooded acreage right away and manage for a timber harvest in the future. MFL is a WDNR program. Therefore, the DC told Joe he’d have to contact his local WDNR forester to talk program specifics. The basic info is also available on their website.

However, Joe’s DC knew that to qualify for MFL he needed a written Forest Management Plan, which is where the NRCS can help. The DC outlined how the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) helps pay private foresters to write plans for folks like Joe. Formal Forest Management Plans can cost several hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on complexity.

Checking all the boxes.

But before thinking too much about payments, the first step for Joe was to fill out an application. It only took a couple minutes to complete, but required more substantial follow-up information and documentation to become eligible.  

To make his application eligible, Joe had to fill out paperwork at the FSA to become ‘established’ as an agricultural producer and connected to his property in their records. In this case, Joe’s agricultural crop is the timber in his woods, which will be harvested according to his management plan.

Joe also verified that his household income was below the eligibility limit for the calendar year. Currently, only folks who make less than $900k/year qualify. Keeping FSA records up to date is an annual requirement, which comes into play because NRCS contracts routinely take over year to plan, submit, and execute. 

Having a signed application got Joe over the first hurdle. However, it took a couple more phone conversations and trips to the USDA service center to get all the supporting documents completed and submitted.

Hurry up, then wait.

Most NRCS programs are funded competitively and Joe’s application was batched and ranked against other applications from across Wisconsin. I say batched because depending on the program, NRCS can fund several rounds of applications each year. I say ranked because in competitive programs only the applications with the highest ’scores’ are selected for funding in each batch. Unfortunately for perspective applicants, the deadlines and ranking criteria vary annually. It’s yet another reason to keep in touch with your DC.  

Depending on the size of the woods and current program rates, a cost-share incentive payment amount is calculated when the application is put together. Joe had this number in mind as he contacted foresters for plan writing estimates.

To make the calls, Joe relied the NRCS’s list of foresters called Technical Service Providers (TSPs). These folks are approved by NRCS to write plans that qualify for incentive payments. Because Joe’s goal was getting into MFL, it’s critical that his forester is also a WDNR certified plan writer (CPW).  

It’s also important to note that Joe could not sign any contracts or engage in any work with the forester before his application was selected and funded by the NRCS. Work done before the final contract is signed with NRCS voids any future payments.  

If an application does not get funded the first time around, it can usually be held for the next batch and ranking opportunity. It’s not uncommon for NRCS to resubmit an application several times before getting funded.

Joe Got Funded!

After his application was selected for funding and the contract was signed with NRCS, Joe chose the forester that aligned with his values, timeline, and was both a TSP and CPW. The forester Joe picked was very familiar with DNR and NRCS business practices, as he’d gone through the mandatory trainings to get certified. This gave Joe reassurance that the plan would meet NRCS and MFL requirements.  

Joe worked closely with his private forester to put together the plan and included hunting and wildlife as a primary goal. A few weeks after meeting in Joe’s woods, the forester finished up the Forest Management Plan and sent a copy to Joe and the NRCS.

After it was approved, Joe got the predetermined incentive payment. In this case, the payment covered the entire cost of the Forest Management Plan. Joe had no out of pocket expenses for the plan, but invested considerable time building relationships and feeding the bureaucracy. Also note, the money NRCS pays landowners through their programs is treated as income by the IRS.  

Jumping Bureaucracies

With plan in hand, Joe contacted his local WDNR forester to enroll in MFL before their annual deadline (June 1). It took over a year of planning and coordination, but he was officially in MFL on January 1st of the following year. Now, Joe is leveraging the relationships he built with the NRCS and WDNR to help execute his plan.  

In a couple years he’ll be ready for his first timber harvest. But in the meantime, he’s got the plan he needs to qualify for other cost-share opportunities. Joe plans to apply for help to control invasive plants, release crop trees, and diversify existing stands with supplemental tree planting. Writing and enacting a Forest Management Plan helped Joe better understand how to increase the value of his woodlands, lowered his tax bill, and provided better hunting opportunities, and it was all made possible with help from the NRCS.

In Closing

I hope there is something you can connect with in Joe’s story and that it helps bridge the gap between you and the NRCS. Seeking assistance with your woods can feel like a winding road of referrals, but never forget that all good conservation is built on relationships. The government employees in your area are civil servants and neighbors. They have the technical expertise and funding to help make your conservation vision a reality.  I encourage woodland owners to follow the steps below to start your own journey today! 

NEXT STEPS for Woodland Owners 
  1. Contact your local WDNR Forester.
  2. Contact your local NRCS District Conservationist.
  3. Write a Forestry Management Plan (if you don’t already have one).
  4. Execute it!