April 18, 2000
Owners of forested land throughout Alberta — from the largest multinational forest company to the individual woodlot owner — won’t be getting a property tax break this year, all because of the province’s stubborn small woodlot owners. These smallholders could have signed onto a plan to turn their private “unmanaged” forests into government-certified managed forests, as other stakeholders wanted, and pocketed the money. The smallholders just couldn’t bring themselves to do so.
“A lot of private woodlot owners had more environmental concerns than economic,” regrets John Ball, an advisor with Alberta’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, who has been doing his best to win over the various factions in the province’s woodlot association, an exercise that would reward those who agree to manage their forest lands for commercial purposes.
Initially, the government’s idea of managing a private woodlot required converting trees into whole logs. The woodlot owners’ reward — apart from their logs’ market value, which, to the government’s dismay, didn’t much motivate them — would be a 90% reduction in their property taxes.
But the woodlot owners balked at signing over to government their rights to use their land as they see fit. They tend to use their woodlots for multiple purposes — not just to extract whole logs, as some occasionally do, but also for birdwatching, hiking, hunting and other recreational purposes, and to serve niche markets, such as willow boughs, which some gather and sell to craft shops.
The province wants a managed woodlot program to keep the forest economy humming. Saw mills need logs, loggers need jobs. Yet increased land prices, pushed by residential, recreational and other alternative uses for the land, threaten to make the Alberta logger an endangered species. “Without the lower taxes, you might not have a forestry industry,” explains Mr. Ball, who now hopes the provincial Legislature can pass tax breaks for the 2001 tax year.
When it comes to putting private forests under provincial management schemes, Alberta is a laggard. In most of Canada, managed forests are the law of the land, focusing woodlot owners on seeing their forest as fodder for saw mills and other forestry industries.
In Nova Scotia, a determined provincial government locks forest land into logging by letting managed woodlot owners pay rural municipalities a mere 25 cents (yes, cents) per acre in property tax. Lest a smallholder consider changing the use of his land — say he wants to stop logging and retire on his land by converting it to cottage use — the province will punish him through a change-of-use tax. The tax — a harsh 20% of the land’s market value as a managed woodlot — dissuades sentimental owners from ceasing logging operations on their land and “keeps it in production, in forestry use,” Arden Whidden, the province’s director of private lands, explains cheerily.
Laid-back British Columbia may be 5,000 kilometres and a world apart from tradition-bound Nova Scotia, but present B.C.’s government with a majestic forest stand and it, too, becomes awestruck at its potential for pulp and lumber. B.C. landowners are less eager to cut: Some plan to leave their land for their children, others might want to develop it for other purposes, explains Mike Lane, senior forester with B.C. Assessment, a Crown agency.
To compete with these private dreams, the province offers public cash, in the form of cuts to their property taxes, typically by one-half to two-thirds. All the private landowners need do is put their land into the province’s high-sounding Forest Land Reserve and cut, cut, cut. While the land remains theirs, they can’t subdivide it or put more than one dwelling on it. If they later want out of the bargain, as some do, the Forest Land Reserve authorities may forbid it outright, or it may first require that the owner substitute a new parcel of land for the withdrawn land, as well as paying a penalty of the past taxes saved.
The de facto policy is “no net reductions in the Forest Land Reserve,” explains Mr. Lane. “We don’t want to see the allowable cut of the land base reduced.” To calculate the allowable cut, the province adds up all the forested land in B.C. that’s potentially available for forestry — in public as well as private forests — and determines how much can be cut on a continual basis. This contrived cut, and this contrived use of land for forestry purposes, satisfy the majority of the stakeholders for whom governments act: the loggers who would otherwise be in a different line of work, the logging towns that want to stave off the day they’re logged out, the forest products industries that want cheap feedstock for their mills and factories.
The minority stakeholders — the actual owners of the land, who want to preserve it for its inherent value — get short shrift, pressured by the others to conform and penalized through the tax system if they don’t. It really couldn’t be any other way, in any system that puts the preservation of our forests in the hands of governments — by definition, political bodies. Politicians, skilled in the art of compromise, will necessarily compromise our forests.