116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A bill to increase property taxes on private forest owners was put on hold Monday in an Iowa Senate subcommittee after speakers said it was an affront after last year's derecho.
A dozen people spoke at a public hearing on the measure and only one - a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation - supported it.
John Zakresek, of Cedar Rapids, told a subcommittee of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that the Aug. 10 derecho destroyed 80 percent of the trees he owns on 3 acres of forest reserve used by all his neighbors. He got an estimate to clean up the property - $70,000.
'Here I am, down on the ground, suffering from the derecho and you're going to kick me in the teeth,” he said.
Iowa's Forest Reserve Program, created in 1906, allows people who own at least 2 contiguous acres with at least 200 trees to be exempt from property taxes on the land. The program was designed to encourage landowners to plant timber on hilly land or riverbeds not suitable for farming to protect the soil from erosion and to provide animal habitat.
Senate File 352 would reduce the property tax exemption to 75 percent next year. And to get the exemption, a forest reserve must be at least 10 acres - up from 2 acres, which leaves out small owners like Zakresek.
Matt Steinfeldt, the Farm Bureau lobbyist, said his organization supports the bill because when one property owner gets a tax break, others in the county must pick up the slack.
He doesn't think people will cut down their forest reserves if their exemption drops from 100 to 75 percent.
'This is about fairness,” he said.
If it's about fairness, said Ken Herring, a central Iowa conservation advocate, the Iowa Legislature should consider cutting agricultural tax breaks, including the rollback on ag land and sales tax exemption on drainage tile.
Since SF 352 requires the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to certify forest and fruit tree reserves, it will stress an already understaffed state agency, Herring said.
'We have fewer district foresters on the ground to help landowners with their more complex problems,” he said, referring to damage from the derecho, the emerald ash borer pest and the oak wilt disease.
Pam Mackey Taylor, of Marion, director of Iowa's Sierra Club chapter, was among speakers who talked about the benefits trees and forest reserves bring to Iowans, including fresh air, recreational opportunities and biodiversity.
'What we should be doing after the derecho is increasing our forest land or ensuring those forests remain as forests and not get plowed up,” she said. 'Increasing the property taxes on woodlands goes in the wrong direction.”
Jim Obradovich, a lobbyist representing the Coalition for Iowa's Woodlands and Trees, said he understands one goal of the bill is to crack down on people who misuse the forest reserve program - but that could be done with enforcement rather than legislation, he said. Instead, he suggested reducing the exemption to 75 percent for new enrollees, while grandfathering in the full exemption for existing owners.
The subcommittee, which includes Sens. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City; Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton; and Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, indefinitely postponed the bill.
Sinclair asked the lobbyist for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to provide alternate language to consider on the size of parcel that would qualify for the program.
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