Audit finds holes in state's sustainable forestry program

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The state legislative auditor says a program to promote sustainable forestry on private land in Minnesota needs more oversight or should be repealed, the Associated Press reported.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles says the Sustainable Forest Incentive Program, created in 2001, has spent $44 million from the state's general fund in the last 10 years to encourage private landowners to practice sustainable forestry.

The program works like this: For every acre of forestland that's not being developed, the landowner gets $7 to offset property taxes.

Landowners with more than 1,920 acres are required to provide public access to the land for hunting and recreation, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

However an audit of the program identified some major faults.

According to the evaluation, the $7-per-acre payments are arbitrary and there's no link to what participating landowners actually pay in property taxes, the Associated Press reported. In some cases, landowners are profiting from the program when payments exceed the taxes on the acres enrolled.

Also, the report took issue with the fact that there was no way for the state to know if landowners abided by the agreement or if landowners were receiving benefits from a separate conservation easement program at the same time.

About 2,300 landowners enrolled more than 737,000 acres in the program this year, the majority of the land is located in northern Minnesota, MPR said.

The Pioneer Press says more than 40 percent of the 17 million forested acres in the state are privately owned.

At a legislative hearing Tuesday, Nobles said it will be up to state lawmakers to fix the program.

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