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Another Voice: Reform forestry tax law to protect water, climate, and communities

By Peter Lehner

From hurricanes Sandy and Irene that tore communities apart and left families without their homes, to the extreme drought of 2016, to the recent flooding along the shores of Lake Ontario, New York has had a first-row seat to the devastating impacts that are caused by climate change.

What many New Yorkers may not know is that New York’s vast forests  – a whopping 19 million acres –have tremendous potential to be part of the solution to slow climate change. New York’s state budget process, which is currently underway, provides us with a key opportunity to protect our forests and our climate.

Intact forests provide benefits such as clean water and air, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, jobs and carbon storage. Forests help filter pollutants to provide cleaner air and water, while reducing the threat of droughts and flooding. With good reason, communities love their forests.

Forests are one of our best protections against climate change.  The trees themselves store large amounts of carbon and undisturbed soil in forests often stores even more. By pulling this carbon from the atmosphere and storing it, forests counteract the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossils fuels.  By slowing climate change, forests help slow sea level rise, reduce floods, droughts, and heat waves, and protect our lakes and winter snows.

As beneficial as our forests are, there is constant pressure to clear or cut them.  Over 75 percent of New York's forestland is privately owned, and most New Yorkers with ten acres of forestland or more are over the age of 55 and earn less than $100,000 annually. Because of this, property taxes play a central role when they make decisions on how to manage their land.

Most landowners want to enhance wildlife habitat and protect water, but property taxes can make holding the land expensive. Current state law  gives landowners a tax break for forest management, but only if landowners have a plan to harvest their trees. Because most landowners do not want to do that, very few New Yorkers take advantage of this program, leaving them stuck with high taxes.

But that could change soon.

A new proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, called the Empire Forests for the Future Initiative (EFFI), could help harness the environmental benefits of New York forests by offering incentives for landowners to manage their forests to enhance carbon storage.

The EFFI would simplify and reform the program to give a tax break to forest owners who manage their land for climate, water, and wildlife benefits – critical public needs. This would increase conservation of our forests and ensure our forests are able to help us combat fossil fuel fired global warming. Our representatives should ensure this becomes law.

EFFI also calls for two new grant programs to empower landowners to create community forests to be used recreationally by the public, and provide funding to landowners for stewardship by reimbursing localities who lose one percent or more in tax revenue due to participation.

The State Senate has joined the governor in taking up EFFI. New York has ambitious goals to lead the nation in addressing climate change – the Assembly must join the Senate and the Governor to pass EFFI in the final State Budget to ensure forests are a tool at our disposal to fight climate change.

Peter Lehner is senior attorney for Earthjustice, the nation’s largest nonprofit environmental law organization, 

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