How One Tweak to New York’s Tax Code Could Save Forests, Cut Emissions and Help Rural Communities

New York State has an opportunity to show how climate change can be fought through agriculture by incentivizing farmers and forest owners to sustainably manage trees that sequester CO2.

In New York, home to these Autumn trees, a novel state tax reform proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo taps into a little-known but powerful climate opportunity — the carbon-soaking power of agricultural and forest land.
In New York, home to these Autumn trees, a novel state tax reform proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo taps into a little-known but powerful climate opportunity — the carbon-soaking power of agricultural and forest land. (Jim Vallee / Getty Images)

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As the Trump Administration tries to tear down climate progress, state and city leaders are fighting back with their own climate solutions. Their efforts to boost clean energy and efficiency tend to hog the spotlight, but energy isn’t the only prospect for climate improvement. A novel state tax reform proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York taps into a little-known but powerful climate opportunity—the carbon-soaking power of agricultural and forest land.

Agriculture, including forestry, is the next big front in the battle to save the climate. Managed properly, agricultural land can cut greenhouse gas emissions by pulling carbon out of the air and storing it in trees, plants and soils. Yet across the country, farmers and other private landowners have little incentive to cultivate their land in ways that enhance carbon storage.

In New York, where 14 million acres of forest lie on private lands, Cuomo has found a way to provide an incentive — through a climate-friendly tweak to the state’s forest tax abatement program. If New York’s legislature agrees on this approach of reshaping outdated forestry laws to benefit rural communities and the climate, it could would make a big difference in New York and become a model for other states.

In the United States, forests offset about 11 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. But since the 1970s, states along the East Coast have lost an area of forest the size of Maryland, due largely to suburban development. Even the forest lands that remain are seldom managed in ways that best support the climate, protect water quality, or provide habitat and recreation.

In his state budget proposal for 2018-2019, Cuomo included funding for the Empire Forests for the Future Initiative. This measure would offer a tax incentive to New York’s hundreds of thousands of private forest owners if they sustainably manage their land.

Though New York already offers forest owners a tax reduction, they can only receive it if they have a plan to harvest trees—not the ideal incentive for promoting climate progress. Cuomo’s reform would make more landowners eligible for benefits, which would accrue not only for sustainably managing timber harvests but for protecting water quality, increasing wildlife habitat and enhancing or preserving carbon storage.

The reform has found support among a diverse, bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, industry and conservation groups, including Earthjustice, because of its significant environmental and economic benefits. My colleagues and I have been exploring similar incentives to enhance carbon storage on private land, particularly on agricultural land, some of which is partially forested. New York’s reforms would allow landowners with 25 acres of land, of which 10 acres are forested, to enroll in the tax abatement program.

The Nature Conservancy calculated that increased enrollment under the proposed reform would sequester an additional 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year – the equivalent of the emissions of more than 250,000 homes.

That’s a big carbon benefit that other states could capitalize on, too. New York’s forest tax reform could pave the way for other states to modernize their own forestry laws, ensuring that privately held forests across the country become tools in the fight to protect climate while also providing economic support to rural communities.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.