Tax break for conservation

Jeff Lampe

Grasslands, wetlands and timber are no longer 'junk ground' in Illinois.

Quite to the contrary. As more people search for land on which to hunt or recreate, the price of once marginal ground has increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, as land prices have soared, so has interest from the Illinois Department of Revenue. The state's tax department is actively seeking to increase property tax assessments and Fulton County is among a handful of Illinois counties where tax rates on 'idle land' have already gone up dramatically.

To help protect undeveloped grasslands, wetlands and timber, the state passed the Conservation Stewardship program this spring. The law offers tax incentives for landowners with 5 or more acres who follow conservation plans designed to maintain quality wildlife habitat.

Many in the conservation world breathed a sigh of relief when the law passed, since there were fears that rising tax rates would cause widespread conversion of habitat into farmland. After all, if having a few trees on a piece of ground makes it more expensive to own, wouldn't it make sense to bulldoze those trees?

In theory the law makes such thinking less likely and coverage is also extended to wetlands and prairies — ground not previously covered by forestry tax incentives. Also, unlike the forestry tax incentives, owners of timber ground are not required to harvest or plant trees under CSP.

All of which sounds good. But word of CSP has been slow to spread and confusion is widespread. While the Department of Natural Resources received a handful of applications this past week, many landowners are unaware of the tax changes, due in part to squabbling between state offices that delayed release of rules until last week.

Even with the publication of those rules, there's considerable confusion. For instance, there's no consensus about a deadline for enrollment.

'There's no deadline in the law or the rules and we will accept plans at any time,' said Glen Kruse, who works in DNR's office of resource conservation. 'But the perceived deadline is apparently based on the idea that assessors will be headed out Jan. 1 to see properties and to assess their values.

'If there is a deadline, it's one that will be set by your county assessor.'

All of which could be significant if you are a landowner with timber, grasslands or wetlands. Under CSP, those acres will be taxed at 5 percent of fair-market value — given that they are properly managed under an accepted plan.

As things stand in parts of Illinois — including Fulton, Menard, Jackson, Sangamon and Williamson counties — those same acres are presently being taxed at 33.3 percent of fair-market value.

Not everyone will save under CSP, though. If your land is currently assessed as farmland or is currently enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, your taxes would actually increase under the new program.

As always, knowledge is power. Contact your tax assessor before making any changes. Ask questions.

'I've talked to several people in Peoria County in the past week and told them that the program would not help them,' said Tom Schwartz, whose Wildlife Management Solutions company can help landowners meet plan criteria. 'The Conservation Stewardship Program is not for everyone.'

In Fulton County that's less likely. In fact, Schwartz is hoping to hold an open seminar for landowners sometime in January.

'Those people have already seen their idle land valued at 33.3 percent of fair-market value,' Schwartz said. 'They've been hit hard.'

The new law is also very significant for prospective buyers of recreational ground. As Schwartz said, 'Across the state, anyone who has that type of land and sells their property after Oct. 1, 2007, the new owner is going to be subject to 33.3 percent of fair-market value.'

With per-acre taxes being pared from $75 to $11 in many common cases, enrollment in CSP could be a determining factor in the feasibility of buying recreational property.

JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3212 or e-mail