Novel loan program helps landowners enter MFL (from The Country Today)

The Country Today had a quite interesting article last week on a loan program to help landowners enter the Managed Forest Law: The Glenwood Project. As you read the article, though, it’s not just the loan program, but a more encompassing view of forests and forestry.

Many thanks to The Country Today for allowing me to reprint it here. I added a few links where appropriate.

Out of the woods: Western Wisconsin initiative helps low-income woodland owners keep, benefit from their land

By Heidi Clausen
Regional Editor, The Country Today
Appeared on 1A, Wed, 3 Nov 2010 [34(40):1A-2A]

When Diane Milner moved to her small farm near Pepin 35 years ago, land was relatively cheap.

But soaring property tax bills have made it increasingly difficult for the self-employed potter to afford to stay on her land.

That’s why, this spring, Milner enrolled her 20-acre woods in The Glenwood Project, a new program for low-income woodland owners through the West-Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency, or West CAP.

“I won’t see any tax savings for maybe two years, but it should save quite a bit,” Milner said. “I think it should be a good program for me.”

Along with property tax savings, the program provides her with a forest-management plan that will help her profit from her woods, including the logging of about 3,000 white pine trees she planted several years ago.

West CAP also helped Milner weatherize her home, a service she views as a plus for her, the environment and local businesses because it lowered her heating costs, cut pollution and supported local jobs.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “It makes a huge difference. I was so much warmer last winter.”

The Glenwood Project was started last fall by Glenwood City-based West CAP as a way to help western Wisconsin property owners afford to keep and financially benefit from their woodlands.

The program – the only one of its kind in the state and perhaps the U.S. – serves Barron, Chippewa, Dunn, Pepin, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties.

The need is great, according to Herb Schweitzer of Rice Lake, a biomass business accountant/consultant hired by West CAP to oversee The Glenwood Project.

Schweitzer has spent most of his life promoting energy independence, starting when he was a teen pumping gas during the 1970s oil embargo.

“I thought it crazy that an energy-rich, resource-rich country like ours could get held hostage over energy by countries around the world,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for the country to catch up with me.”

He said the sluggish economy has dramatically increased the number of landowners who might qualify for a program such as The Glenwood Project.

“I’ve had a number of calls from people I would call ‘the new poor,’ who were middle class in 2007 but this year fit under this (due to lost jobs, cut wages or other factors),” he said. “The response has been overwhelming.”

The project, which is first-come, first-served, helped about 10 landowners this past year, and there’s a rapidly growing waiting list for this year.

“We can’t touch the need out there, but at least it’s a start,” Schweitzer said.

The project, funded its first year through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, recently was renewed for another year with more than twice as much money provided by the Otto Bremer Foundation.

The Glenwood Project is designed to do three things:

  • Reduce woodland owners’ property tax bills by assisting them with enrollment in a forest-management plan.
  • Cut residents’ winter heating bills through home weatherization and help them make the transition to a biomass-burning stove, furnace or boiler.
  • Boost woodland owners’ revenue through timber sales and enrollment in government woodland programs.

Schweitzer said the project is a hand up – not a handout – for woodland owners caught up in a common catch-22.

“It takes money to save money, and it takes volume to make money,” he said, adding that many rural retirees are “getting taxed right off their own acreage.”

The Glenwood Project is expected to be especially popular this year as landowners who enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Law 25-year option see their contracts expire and consider renewing or facing a much higher tax burden.

Landowners with at least 10 acres can enroll land in the Managed Forest Law program for 25 or 50 years.

In exchange for a lower tax rate, enrollees must have a forest management plan submitted to the Department of Natural Resources. However, because of state budget cuts, the plans no longer are free.

Participants must hire a forester to write the plan, which typically costs about $600 for a 20-acre woods, Schweitzer said. That’s a big barrier for many low-income landowners.
“The timing for this program is critical,” he said.

The Glenwood Project has been a decade in the making and is the brainchild of Peter Kilde, West CAP executive director.

Kilde owns 60 acres of woodland enrolled in the MFL since 1990. He said he recognized that a lack of money could keep some landowners from enrolling in the program.

West CAP commissioned a study on woodlot ownership that found that half the land mass in its service area is forest, and about 20 percent of that is owned by low-income individuals or households.

Because The Glenwood Project is unique, initial funding was hard to get, Kilde said, but the program has proven itself this past year. Inquiries have tripled, he said.

“We have something of a story to tell now,” he said. “We’ve been encouraged by the interest in this around the state and around the country. All over the place, people are going, ‘Hmm, good idea.’ ”

Kilde said the program is designed to eventually pay mostly for itself through use of a revolving loan program.

Woodland owners can get interest-free loans to pay for their management plan and must submit half their annual property tax savings to West CAP until their loan is paid off.

“They reap half the benefits right away,” Schweitzer said.

The project helps small-woodland owners facilitate timber sales, partnering them with nearby landowners so they can get a fair price.

“If you don’t have 20 or more acres of timber to harvest, if there aren’t 25 or more loads of wood to harvest out of there, you can’t get a logger to look at it,” Schweitzer said.

The Glenwood Project also helps make it possible for woodland owners to heat their homes with their own homegrown biomass – again, through interest-free loans.

Many woodland owners heat with propane because they don’t have the extra money to buy a wood furnace or boiler, said Schweitzer, who assesses each person’s situation, then works with vendors to determine the best unit for them, considering insurance and zoning issues and tapping into state and federal programs.

“It helps them do what would be a no-brainer,” he said. “They’re paying it back so we can help the next person in line do the right thing.”

Schweitzer said that aspect of the program eventually could include homeowners in urban areas who want to burn biomass they buy from local woodland owners.

“It gives pellet people another market for their product so they’re not exporting so much,” he said. “It helps grow both the demand and supply sides for this regional industry. The bigger it gets, the more self-sufficient we’ll become.”

Schweitzer said he has gotten many calls about the program from people beyond the West CAP region and hopes it can be expanded into other parts of Wisconsin.

The Glenwood Project focuses on one of the things Wisconsin does best – grow trees, he said, but while many people see the benefits of biomass, inconsistent energy policy has held the industry back.

“Government is the biggest disruptive force,” Schweitzer said.

The Glenwood Project is the latest in a long list of West CAP initiatives designed to make rural residents in the seven-county region more self-sufficient. Other efforts focus on home and car ownership, local food systems and business development.

In addition to its food bank, the agency recently opened a wood bank to provide cut firewood for area residents in need.

West CAP was founded in 1965 and is one of the nation’s first community action agencies. It’s one of 16 agencies in Wisconsin.

Heidi Clausen can be reached at clausen-at-amerytel-dot-net.

Enrollment in The Glenwood Project is under way. For more information, contact Herb Schweitzer at 715-296-2790 or herb-at-schweitzerenergy-dot-com, or contact West CAP at 800-606-9227 or 715-265-4271.

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