EDITORIAL: Seeing the Forest for the Trees, Part One
Let’s talk about tree farming for a moment.
Drive eastward a few hundred yards out of downtown Pagosa Springs — or drive a few hundred yards westward out of uptown Pagosa Springs — and you are practically in the middle of nowhere. As you look around, you see tree-covered hills and mountains for as far as the eye can see. Some of those hills and mountains are within the San Juan National Forest, administered by the U.S. Forest Service… but a lot of the surrounding forest lands are privately owned.
Many of us moved here, to Pagosa, within the past 30 years. Most of us, in fact. And many of us probably came here from larger cities, where we could drive for miles without ever seeing a forest, or even an acre of undeveloped land.
Coming to Pagosa, we were thrilled to see open, undeveloped meadows and hills bristling with pine and spruce. As we looked around at our new hometown — and make no mistake about it, dear reader, we adopted this as our hometown, for better or worse — we looked around at the forests and said to ourselves, “How beautiful, and wild, and natural. So different from the city where I used to live.”
But there is another group of people who look around at the forests and see an economic resource: timber. And many in this group also own acres of private forests in Archuleta County — and unknown to many of us, are maintaining and upgrading these forest lands in hopes of one day harvesting useful forest products.
To many, the forests are something we value as a stunning visual backdrop to our “small town” lives. Maybe we even take a hike among the trees once in a while, or go fishing or hunting in the forests on occasion. To our local tree farmers, however, the forests are a slowly maturing crop — a crop that might not be harvested for another 50 or 100 years, but one that, someday, will provide wood products similar to the kind used to build the homes we live in… and through the windows of which we look out at wild, apparently untamed woodlands.
“Southwest Colorado has the largest number of tree farmers in the state, partly because we’ve got the best trees. The rest of the state doesn’t get very much water, compared to what we get. Ponderosa pines grow a lot better here than in the rest of the state.”
Some words of wisdom from tree farmer Ron Chacey — avid local gardener, former member of the County Planning Commission, former Archuleta County Commissioner candidate — who had recently attended the second planning meeting of the Archuleta County Tree Farmers committee when I interviewed him a few years back. Ron and his wife Windsor were caretaking 40 acres of fine-looking Ponderosa pines at the end of Terry Robinson Road, about eight miles southeast of downtown Pagosa Springs.
Back in 2009, Ron Chacey was recognized as the San Juan Tree Farmer of the Year by the Colorado State Forest Service.
If you look at the Chaceys’ tree farm on the Archuleta County Assessor’s online map, it appears to be almost completely covered with trees — trees that, presumably, will be harvested someday and made into wood products…
In the meantime, the tree-covered hillsides wait there quietly, growing their agricultural crop, and forming part of the wild, forested view many of us see when we look toward the beautiful San Juan Mountain range south of town.
I had called Mr. Chacey to talk about the San Juan Tree Farmers and their new subcommittee. (I get excited when I hear about local citizens forming themselves into cooperative groups, to help each other.)
“We’ve met twice so far,” Mr. Chacey explained. “The first meeting was just a potluck, to talk about organizing, and see if we wanted to do anything. The second meeting was to actually start organizing.”
“The formation of the group will give us some political clout and some credibility in the community. The biggest interest at the moment is the question about ‘Ag’ classification and ‘Ag’ status.”
Ah, yes. Taxes. One of the two things certain in this life.
Just as the San Juan Tree Farmers are a somewhat autonomous subsidiary of the much larger state organization, so the Archuleta County government is a statutory “subsidiary” of the state of Colorado. The state makes the laws for us County residents, about how many elected officials we will have in the County government, how much those elected officials will be paid, and how the taxes will be collected to pay for the County’s governmental functions.
(Note: Home Rule counties have considerably more autonomy. That’s an article for another day.)
The state, long ago, determined that agricultural property must, for tax purposes, be valued differently from vacant land not being used for commercial agriculture.
If I own 40 aces of vacant, tree-covered land here in Archuleta County — and I am not actively operating a tree farm or other agricultural enterprise on that 40 acres — then I am going to pay property taxes based basically on the recent sales price of similar properties in the county. Take Ron Chacey’s 40-acre tree farm as an approximate example. If a neighboring 40-acre parcel sells for $250,000, we might assume that Mr. Chacey’s property is also worth about the same amount on the open market. If Mr. Chacey were holding his 40 acres merely as vacant land, with no agricultural purpose, he might be paying $5,000 a year in property taxes. (This rough guess is based on a 29 percent valuation rate on vacant, non-agricultural land. I am not a trained assessor and my pocket calculator is 20 years old.)
But when a tree farmer actively operates an agricultural enterprise on his 40 acres, his land is valued by the Assessor’s office, not by the market value, but rather by the amount of income a 40-acre tree farm typically produces each year. That puts the assessed value of the 40-acre farm (if it includes, say, a small shack) at about $1500.
The property tax bill will be about $100 a year. Not $5,000 a year.
Some people might look at a tree farmer’s property tax bill and feel outraged that a landowner could pay so little in taxes, when other owners of vacant land, and of homes and businesses, are paying at a much higher rate.
But looking at it another way, that tree farmer is paying $100 a year to help provide all of us in Pagosa Springs with a scenic view of wooded hills and mountains, whenever we look off toward the mountains.