Financial incentives for property owners to plant and manage their lands for timber production have been around since the 1930s, but many private landowners in Mississippi do not know about them.
These incentives, called cost-share programs, were developed to offset the initial costs for site preparation, tree planting and forest stand improvement.
Private landowners own about 90 percent of Mississippi’s forestland. Out of approximately 125,000 landowners in the state, about 1,000 were interviewed recently as part of a study conducted by the Mississippi State University’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
"Our study found that 50 percent were not aware of assistance available to them," said Edwin Sun, MSU associate forestry professor. "However, considering all private forest landowners, including those who did not meet the criteria for the survey, the proportion of landowners who have no knowledge of these programs is likely much higher."
Approximately 22 programs are currently offered, but many Mississippians are shouldering the cost of improvements on their own.
"Forestland management can be expensive, and a long period of growth is usually needed before income can be generated," Sun said. "When forest landowners harvest their land, they face a critical decision: to reforest the land, to let the land regenerate naturally or to use the land for other purposes."
Many of the cost-share programs were designed specifically to reduce the financial burden on landowners and encourage them to replant their lands after harvest, Sun added. Reforestation is important, particularly in a state that is heavily forested and economically dependent on forest-related industries.
"Cost-share programs allow landowners to sustain their forestland, which in turn improves the environment," Sun said.
Federal and state governments provide financial incentives to landowners to encourage good stewardship of natural resources. The environmental benefits far exceed the timber that is produced.
"Managed forestland provides many environmental amenities, including soil conservation, carbon storage, wildlife habitats, air and water quality maintenance, and recreational opportunities," said Charlie Morgan, MSU alumnus and State Forester of the Mississippi Forestry Commission.
Morgan’s agency is in charge of administering the Mississippi Forest Resource Development Program, which is funded by timber severance tax collections.
"Over 1.7 million acres have been enrolled in this program, with $81 million distributed to landowners," Morgan said. "The program shares the cost for implementing specific forestry practices designed to produce timber and enhance wildlife development in the state."
Available since 1974, the state’s Forest Resource Development Program was one of the three programs mentioned in the study. The other major programs were the federal-based Forest Incentive Program and the Mississippi Reforestation Tax Credit.
The Forest Incentive Program was authorized in 1973 and replaced by the Forest Land Enhancement Program in 2002. Despite the name change, its purpose remained the same: to increase timber production and encourage good forest management on private forestland by sharing the cost of tree planting, timber stand improvement and site preparation.
Initiated in 1999, the Mississippi Reforestation Tax Credit promotes reforestation on private lands in the state. While the program does not provide cost-share assistance, participants can earn a state income tax credit for reforestation and other forest improvement practices.
The study found that landowner awareness of incentives was influenced by their gender, how much land they owned, how much regeneration experience they had and whether they were members of any forestry associations. The study also revealed that the assistance programs are helping those who need them most.
Many public assistance programs, including cost-share programs, are involved in debates related to equity, Sun said.
"People ask if these programs are subsidizing wealthy landowners who could afford to invest in forest management without public assistance," Sun said. "We found that when disadvantaged landowners—those with less acreage, education and income—were aware of the assistance, they were more likely to apply than more advantaged landowners."
Perhaps most importantly, the study revealed the need for better promotion and implementation of public assistance programs. Scientists and foresters both acknowledge that a useful long-term strategy is needed to make landowners aware of the opportunities.
"Landowners need to join forestry organizations, attend Extension workshops and work with natural resource professionals on a regular basis," Sun said. "By doing these things, they can learn about the opportunities and better manage their forestland."
Landowners interested in cost-share programs should visit the USDA Forest Service incentive website at www.srs.fs.usda.gov/econ/data/forestincentives or the Mississippi Forestry Commission website at www.mfc.ms.gov. Landowners can also contact the Mississippi Forestry Commission service forester in their county.