MARQUETTE – A revamped state program which gets more private lands into timber production, ensures more forest planning and offers tax incentives to landowners has seen great gains over its first few months.

The Qualified Forest Program encourages private property owners to manage their forestlands in an economically and environmentally sustainable way according to site-specific forest management plans. In exchange for enrolling their property in the program, landowners receive exemptions from local school operating taxes and the uncapping of the taxable value of property if the land changes ownership.

In June, nine bills were enacted into law which moved the program first started in 2006 from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and changed the way the program is administered.

The new program lowers application fees, requires specific elements for forest management plans, doubles the amount of land private property owners can enroll, requires planned timber harvests to occur within three years and does not require public access to private land.

At a recent hearing before the state’s Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, MDARD’s Rich Harlow said enrollment had increased significantly within the first few months of the program, which became effective June 6.

“The total acres that are enrolled in the program…for the 2014 tax year would be 147,824 acres,” Harlow said. “About a 58 percent increase in the amount of acres that were in the program under the previous legislation.”

There have been 307 new enrollments into the program, covering 47,620 acres with 731 requests to transfer from the old program to the new program, involving 97,295 acres. There were 77 requests to rescind land under the old program, amounting to 9,271 acres.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said lawmakers are hoping to extend a June 5 deadline for landowners to transfer from the Commercial Forest Act program to the new Qualified Forest Program, sparing property owners a financial CFA withdrawal penalty.

“Part of the problem, the program has become so popular, that they can’t keep up to the demand and so we’re running out of time,” Casperson said. “We’re going to end up with people getting caught up in this penalty thing.”

Casperson said he thinks the drivers of the new program are the tax incentives and the fact landowners can retain their land in a private holding, without public access, as is required of CFA lands.

“It’s kind of a double incentive, they get not as much of a tax break as you would with CFA, but they do get a tax incentive and they also get to keep it in private hands,” Casperson said. “They control their property and I think those two combinations just made this thing go through the roof.”

The increased timber production under the program helps balance the amount of timber harvested on private, state and federal lands.

MDARD officials said no increased timber harvest is expected on federal lands, while state harvests are yielding roughly the same amount of timber being produced each year. Meanwhile, private lands are estimated to be producing up to five times the amount of timber annually harvested.

The Delta County Conservation District said 43 percent of the U.P., or 3.6 million acres, is owned by non-industrial private property owners. A Michigan State University survey of such landowners found only 20 percent of the state’s 11 million acres of private forestlands are actively managed.

“We have reached a point in time that if we’re going to keep our forest resource healthy, across all ownership patterns, we’re going to have to get more from the private landowner,” Rick Lucas, a veteran forester for Osceola, Lake and Mecosta counties, said. “And I think the QFP program will indeed hit the mark in that regard.”

Casperson said the highest percentage of enrollment in the program regionally is in the central U.P., with Delta County the highest, followed by Marquette and Dickinson counties.

In an effort complementing the new program. professional foresters from 17 conservation district offices work under the Forestry Assistance Program in more than 40 Michigan counties, encouraging private landowners to plan, manage, protect and use their timberlands.

“The Forest Assistance Program offers an exciting opportunity to non-industrial private landowners who are interested in managing their forests and to better understand the role they can play in improving recreation, wildlife habitat, and timber revenue, while at the same time attempting to implement their goals and objectives,” said Matt Watkeys, a forester for Marquette and Alger counties.

Steven Shine, manager of the Forestry Assistance Program, said in the first year there were over 1,599 site visits from conservation district foresters.

“In fairly short time, we’ve managed to make a lot of success and working with landowners, the conservation district foresters provide site visits and help to get landowners excited about managing their private forest resource,” Shine said.

The land involved totaled 172,322 acres.

“They do those site visits to help landowners appreciate what they have, what they can do with it and that’s the starting point for helping us to refer to the private sector,” Shine said.

There were also 234 workshops or outreach events held to illustrate opportunities to landowners. A total of 539 referrals were made to the private sector for forest management plan writing.

Maximum duration of plans under the program is 20 years. The plans can be used as a forecasting tool to predict when acreage of a given species is expected to be ready for harvest.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has helped in cost sharing the development of forest management plans, providing $515,000 in federal funds which produced 420 management plans covering 56,128 acres.

Casperson said there were initial concerns from private foresters that conservation districts would not refer plan work to them with the government subsidizing the districts, which would theoretically be working against them.

A fee equivalent of two mills is collected each year from landowners and put into the Private Forestland Enhancement Fund. Money from the fund is used to operate the Qualified Forest Program and provide forestry assistance to property owners.

“We haven’t run into really any problems that have been vindicated or justified with that concern,” Casperson said. “We’re actually seeing just the opposite happening.”

Rory Mattson of the Delta Conservation District said over the past 18 months, the Forestry Assistance Program has referred an estimated $1.1 million worth of work to private sector consultants, contractors and engineers in Delta and Schoolcraft counties.

Mattson said foresters have conducted 207 private landowner site visits, reviewing 31,711 acres, mostly for development of wildlife habitat and game species management. Plans covering 32,651 acres have been written or are in production. The estimated timber stumpage from the plans will total an estimated $2.5 million.

Shine said an estimated $4.4 million worth of timber was harvested in Michigan in 2013 through the efforts of the Forestry Assistance Program and conservation district foresters, with a $5 million threshold expected to be matched or surpassed this year.

Casperson said he expects the new Qualified Forest Program to grow across the state.

“People get frustrated with government being involved or government programs, but I don’t know how you can’t look at this one and say this has been an absolute success so far,” Casperson said. “I’m very encouraged by it. It’s working just as we thought it would and even some of our critics now have come out now agreed that it’s worked very, very well.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.