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Adirondack Council Supports Empire Forest for Future Plan

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John Sheehan
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, March 1, 2018

ALBANY, N.Y. – The Adirondack Council today urged the Legislature to approve a portion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2018/19 NYS Executive Budget that would create new incentives for keeping private forests in the Adirondack Park undeveloped and suitable for a wide range of wildlife and recreation.

“The Empire Forests for the Future Initiative would be a vast improvement on the current incentives for ecologically responsible commercial forestry and for wildlife conservation on private lands,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “We support approval of the initiative without changes. While not perfect, it contains many elements that conservationists, the forest products industry, private landowners and local officials have sought for a long time.  We urge its approval.”

Janeway said the incentives would do a better job of protecting wildlife and water quality in private Adirondack forests, while treating landowners and local communities more fairly and encouraging responsible commercial timber harvesting.

The Adirondack Park is a six-million-acre protected landscape comprised of public and private lands.  About half is private land, including commercial timberlands, recreational lands, private estates, resorts, businesses, homes and communities.  The other half is public Forest Preserve, protected as “forever wild” by the NYS Constitution.

“Private forests are very important to the health of the Adirondack Park,” Janeway explained.  “The combination of timberlands and Forest Preserve that will never be logged provides the Adirondack Park with a broad array of wildlife habitat.  Wildlife and water quality suffer when forests are chopped into pieces by roads and new development.” 

For decades, the Adirondack Council and other stakeholders have sought reforms to sections 480 and 480a of the New York State Real Property Tax Law. These laws provide tax abatements of up to 80 percent on property taxes for forest landowners who agree to reserve their land for timber production rather than development.

The Governor’s budget includes a plan that grandfathers participants of the current programs, while expanding the scope and reach of the state’s efforts. Because it is part of the budget proposal, it would be automatically approved with passage of the budget unless the Legislature negotiates its removal. The budget deadline is March 31.

“We believe this program can provide improved incentives for environmentally responsible forestry and private open space conservation,” Janeway said. “This can and should be done without inadvertently incentivizing activities that conflict with the preservation and enhancement of the wild forest character of the Adirondack Park.”

As the Empire Forests for the Future Initiative advances, Janeway said the Council would also urge all Adirondack stakeholders – including the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) – to study and better manage clear-cutting and forested private land subdivision and construction.  There also need to be science-based rules for the production and use of biomass fuels.

“Concurrently with approval of this initiative the State’s Adirondack Park Agency should work with the DEC to update safeguards to protect against overcutting or unsustainable harvesting,” said Janeway. “It should be recognized that on some limited percentage of private forest land what the Park Agency defines as a ‘clear-cut’ might be a smart and scientifically desirable forest management practice.

“It should also be recognized that large or extensive clear cutting would have negative impacts on the wild character of the Adirondack Park,” he explained. “The Park Agency should work with all stakeholders to update its definition of clear-cutting, do a cumulative impact analysis of such cutting on the wild forest character of the park and set clear-cutting limits. The state should also use this opportunity to reconsider the policy that allows clear-cuts of fewer than 25 contiguous acres to be carried out without a permit.”

On lands enrolled in the new 480-b program, the Council will seek regulations that provide for state review of development and road placement related to recreational camp structures and associated infrastructure. Private tax benefits are designed to limit development, protect open space, encourage sustainable forest management and conserve wildlife. 

New York’s first tax law that incentivized forest management was the Fisher Forest Tax Law in 1926.  It was updated and became “480” in 1956.  It was updated again in 1976 with new 480-a. The state legislative statement of intent says the law’s purpose is: “to provide a means by which present and future forest lands may be protected and enhanced as a whole segment of the state’s economy and as an economic and environmental resource of major importance.”

“That purpose is still relevant today, and perhaps is even more important in 2018 than it was in 1974,” said Janeway. “The forest products industry has changed dramatically. Science and forest practices have advanced. Changes to New York State’s forest tax abatement program are also needed.”

The Adirondack Council doesn’t buy or own land and it doesn’t accept government grants or taxpayer-funded contributions of any kind.   

The Adirondack Council is a privately funded not-for-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park.  The Council envisions a Park with clean water and clean air, comprised of core wilderness areas, surrounded by farms and working forests, and vibrant, rural communities.

The Adirondack Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action.  Adirondack Council members live in all 50 United States.

Major Provisions of the Empire Forests for the Future Program

Empire Forests for the Future would:

  • Retain, but halt further enrollment into current existing (480 & 480-a) programs;
  • Create a new, two-track 480-b program with tax reductions for third-party certified forestry, for non-certified forests and for wildlife habitat management, while decreasing the minimum acreage from 50 to 25 acres.
  • Provide a mechanism for reimbursement to communities for property tax lost (if  more than one percent of total assessment, subject to appropriations; none in current proposal);
  • Streamline administration for the state and remove regulatory burdens for landowners;
  • Decreases state oversight and penalties for violations, makes program withdrawal easier;
  • Provide opportunities for landowner certification of compliance, including automatic enrollment option if participating in an existing certification program (such as Sustainable Forestry Initiative or Forest Stewardship Council);
  • Establish requirement for harvest notification to the state when clear-cutting 10 acres or more;
  • Eliminate six-percent stumpage tax to be paid to local governments;
  • Create two new Environmental Protection Fund grant programs to support private open space conservation and forest management:
    • 50-percent match grants for local government or not-for-profit purchase of “community forests;” and,
    • Grants for forest management and property planning.
  • Amend the Right to Practice Forestry Law to further limit local government’s ability to restrict or regulate forest management activities;
  • Establish a state procurement preference for NYS wood products including biomass; and,
  • Authorize DEC to develop regulations to clarify what third-party certifications count.

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