Gather ’round the campfire, children. The old forester-poet has a little story to tell you. It’s not a ghost story, but it’s kind of scary. Pull up a camp chair and grab one of those hickory sticks. We’re going to roast some marshmallows while I tell it.
It’s about the forest, conservation, and government policy. Sounds boring and complicated, right? Well, I’ll try to keep it simple so it’s easy to understand. I’ll put the hay down low where all the little donkeys can reach it.
First the government policy part. If you pay attention to the news, you may have noticed that the “Bush-era” tax cuts are set to expire December 31. Now you may be saying “Good. Time to stick it to the 1%. Those rich fat-cats aren’t paying their fair share.”
Well I’m not going to try to persuade you that you have bought into the politics of class warfare, children. I’m not a politician — I’m a tree man. But I do want you to know what effect this change will have on the landscape in Alabama and the rest of the South. Lots of trees are in the balance.
One of the taxes that Congress and President Bush reduced was what people call the “death tax.” Lawyers and accountants call it the “estate tax.” Beginning January 1, this tax will return to the old rate, and the heirs of a person who dies will owe the U.S. Government 55% of the value of any estate that totals over a million dollars.
“Millionaires! Let’s get ’em,” you say. Well hang on a second — and watch your marshmallow there, Frank. You have to keep an eye on it or it will burn.
Let’s say your daddy is 88 years old. He grew up on a 80 acre farm in Coosa County, Alabama. He left the farm at 16 (lied about his age at the recruiting depot in Sylacauga) to cross the big pond. There was a war going on, and he and a bunch of other farm-boys like him are the reason we don’t speak German or Japanese.
Daddy came home to the farm after the war –but he didn’t stay. He got a job in the new papermill in nearby Childersburg, met your momma, and bought a nice little house in Sylacauga. Pretty soon you and your brother came along. It was a nice middle-class life. You’ll weren’t rich, and daddy put in a lot of hours at his job, but things were pretty good.
Daddy never forgot that farm. He was always a farm-boy at heart. Every time any land became available near it he went to the bank and borrowed the money and bought it. By the time he retired at age 65, the original home-place had grown to 437 acres. He worked a lot of overtime hours in that hot, stinking papermill to pay for that land, but he loved every acre.
Most of the land was just woods. He always had a little garden and a cow or two, but he loved those woods. He was always dragging you down there, teaching you and your brother about the different trees, animals, and plants that occupied he land. You saw your first fox squirrel in a longleaf pine up on the ridge. He taught you how to tell the difference between a buck track and a doe track. You learned where to find wild grapes, blackberries, and ginseng. You made lots of memories there.
His land. Your land. He made sure that you knew that.
Daddy’s getting really feeble now, especially in the last two years since momma died. He can’t get down to the land much unless you or your brother drive down from your homes in North Alabama and take him. He still loves to be there — and by now you do too. You showed your two boys their first fox squirrel there in that same spot where you saw yours.
The day that you’ve been dreading finally comes along. You and your brother and the grandchildren are standing next to a fresh grave at Evergreen Cemetery.
Now don’t get scared, Janey. I told you that this was not a ghost story. What’s that noise? Why that was just an old hoot-owl. He’s not going to bother us. Get you another marshmallow, and I’ll finish telling my story.
Several days later you head down to the lawyer’s office to “settle” your daddy’s estate. The lawyer has bad news. You and your brother owe the Internal Revenue Service $319,950 in Estate Taxes.
“That can’t be,” you say. “Daddy wasn’t rich!”
The lawyer shows you the math:
- Current appraised value of 437 acres in Coosa County: $1,311,000.
- Current appraised value of home in Sylacauga: $150,000.
- Life Insurance policy: $50,000.
- Amount left in paper company retirement plan: $35,000.
- Savings and bank accounts: $35,000.
That totals $1,581,000. Everything above one million is taxable at 55%. You owe $319,950.
What are you going to do? You and your brother don’t have $319,950.
Well I’ll tell you what you will have to do. You are going to sell some timber, and you’re going to have to do it fast. Uncle Sam is kind of funny that way. He’ll tell you it’s HIS money and he wants it NOW!
I’ll predict that over half of that land your daddy worked so hard for and loved so much is going to wind up clearcut just to pay the tax. And since other folks are in the same predicament as you, they’ll be at the mercy of the market too. If timber prices happen to be down when all this happens, you may have to cut more than half the acres.
It’s a sad thing, children. It’s bad policy. It’s bad for people and bad for the environment. It’s the very opposite of the American ideal of conservation of natural resources. Conservation means “wise use.” There’s nothing wise about using resources in this manner. Daddy would have been heart-broken — and you are heart-broken just thinking about it.
Children, listen to the old forester. I was around before the Bush tax cut when this was going on. I’ve seen it too many times.
Hey, the fire is getting low and I believe that it’s about time for some of you to get to bed. Let’s head on back to the farm-house. That’s enough for tonight.
What’s that Deb? Will this place ever have to be clearcut to pay some outrageous government bill?
I don’t know, child. I sure hope not.