By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican bill that would make sweeping changes to Wisconsin’s managed forest land program got a tepid welcome at a public hearing Tuesday, with landowners complaining the measure still doesn’t go far enough.
The measure would lift the cap on program land that could be closed to the public, allow program participants to opt out without a penalty and shift revenue meant for state forestry enhancement to local governments, among a host of other reforms.
But a number of landowners told the Assembly forestry committee that the bill doesn’t let them lease closed land to hunters. The state Department of Natural Resources also warned it could create gaping deficits in funding for managing forests.
Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, who co-wrote the bill with Hazelhurst Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany, said he likely would revise the proposal.
“This bill continues to be a work in progress,” the Crivitz Republican told the committee.
Landowners who enroll in the managed forest program get huge property tax breaks if they keep their land open to the public for recreation and abide by a timber management plan. Program participants can close their property but they get a smaller tax credit and must pay a fee. According to the DNR, about 3.3 million acres are currently enrolled in the program; about two-thirds of the land is closed.
In 2008, Democratic lawmakers banned program participants from leasing closed land for recreation, angering landowners who’d been leasing property to hunters as an additional source of income. Participants also have been encircling open parcels with closed ones, cutting off public access while retaining the open-land tax credit.
The bill would lift the 160-acre cap on closed land for non-industrial land owners, allowing them to close off as much land as they want while still enjoying a tax break. The proposal also would eliminate local taxes on timber and allow local governments to keep 80 percent of closed acreage fees — 100 percent of the fees currently go to the DNR’s forestry account.
It also would reduce the fee for withdrawing early from the program and allow landowners to drop out without penalty if legislators make changes to the program they don’t like. The DNR and property owners also wouldn’t have to execute wildlife protection plans.
Doug Duren, president of the Wisconsin Alliance of Forest Owners, said his association can’t support the bill unless it allows landowners to lease closed land for hunting, calling it a property rights issue. Mary Jean Huston, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Wisconsin chapter, submitted written testimony complaining that provisions allowing landowners to withdraw from the program if they disagree with changes are too broad and ambiguous.
James Warren, the DNR’s forestry section chief, told the committee that the number of closed acres likely will rise and the bill doesn’t ensure public access to open areas surrounded by closed parcels.
Keeping 80 percent of the closed acreage fees with the local could create a $6.8 million deficit in the state forestry account in fiscal year 2017 and a $12.6 million deficit in the account by 2019, he added, making it difficult for the DNR to preserve and develop Wisconsin’s forests. The language allowing no action on wildlife protection plans could run afoul of federal requirements, he said.
Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma, has proposed a bill that would repeal the leasing ban on closed program land. That measure that got a much warmer reception Tuesday.
Jim Puchter, from Fort Pierce, Fla., told the committee he owns thousands of acres in northern and southwestern Wisconsin, including some open under the program and some closed. He said the leasing ban robbed him of income he was counting on in retirement and repealing the ban would allow him to control who enters his property and what they do on it.
“You need to have the control of your own private property,” he said. “Without that, it’s just not a wise investment.”