The 2020 session officially began on Jan. 8. On Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 8 and 9, both the House and Senate met in general session and vote on the committee recommendations for the bills carrying over from the 2019 session. We can expect the committee work to begin (public hearings, work sessions, and committee votes) on the new 2020 bills the week of Jan. 13.

 With more than 90 bills going into Jan. 8, the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association's policy workload is a little heavier than most years. But NHTOA executive director Jasen Stock expects a lot of the bills carrying over from 2019 to be killed, bringing the workload back down to a more typical level (approximately 80 bills).

Bills of special interest to NHTOA members include:

HB 1131 – This bill seeks to repeal the severance tax (aka timber tax). Although the NHTOA is not a supporter of the timber tax and finds its administration/collection often to be burdensome, this bill will not eliminate the taxation of timber (which is written into the New Hampshire Constitution). Instead, HB 1131 will shift the taxation of timber to an annual assessment instead of at the time of harvest. The NHTOA appreciates the sponsor’s effort to reduce a tax on timberland owners, but the administrative burden and tax inconsistencies this bill would create, plus the fact this bill does not eliminate the tax, are problematic. The NHTOA will oppose this bill.

HB 1155 – This bills seeks to modify the timber tax law’s 10,000 board foot personal use exemption. Currently 10,000 board feet of timber harvested for personal consumption (e.g., building a structure, making fence posts, etc.) is exempt from the timber tax. This bill seeks to remove the requirement the timber be for personal use; instead the timber would not be “for sale.” This bill also specifies that the land upon which the timber is harvested be “residential or non-commercial.” Similar to the prior bill (HB 1131), we appreciate the sponsor’s attempt to reduce a tax burden, but again this change in law would be problematic. Moreover, we believe this bill would create problems for the towns and state agencies charged with enforcing New Hampshire’s timber tax law (e.g., does the land need to be zoned residential, or does it have to be the landowner’s residence?).

SB 511 – This is a Current Use bill. This bill will require the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) to publicly release the assessment model they use to calculate the Current Use forestland and forestland with documented stewardship rates. DRA’s refusal to release a copy of this model publicly has been an issue raised by a couple tax activists from the Lyme area, claiming lack of transparency. NHTOA was involved in the model construction and approval process, and we are surprised DRA’s attorney’s insistence that the model is “intellectual property” and therefore can’t be released. The model was presented publicly many times in numerous public work sessions and forums. For the purpose of fostering greater transparency the NHTOA supports this bill.

HB 601 - This bill establishes an assurance deed. The sponsor’s intent is to create an easier and quicker way to clear titles and deeds. Unfortunately, the mechanism this bill uses only looks back at encumbrances placed on the property within the last 40 years, and the process of gathering information from abutters on possible encumbrances (e.g., rights-of-way) is flawed. In addition to rights-of-way, other property rights could be impacted by this bill such as timber rights, gravel rights, water flowage, and views. After several work sessions on this bill, in late October the House Commerce Committee voted to recommend the full House kill this bill when they convene this week. The NHTOA supports this recommendation.

HB 543 -- This is the 2019 wetland buffer bill. The NHTOA opposes this proposal, as we believe it will impact forest management activities. Specifically, as proposed, HB 543 seeks to establish a 50-foot protective buffer adjacent to all wetlands and a 100-foot buffer adjacent to “high value wetlands.” “High value wetlands” is a proposed new category of wetland that is based on:

·         Presence of natural heritage elements (rare, threatened, endangered species, or a species of interest);

·         Within a tier 3 stream (drains 640 acres) floodplain;

·         Forested wetland greater than five acres where more than 50 percent of the soil is very poorly drained; and

·         Any wetland in a floodplain subject to flooded soils.

In both cases (50-foot and 100-foot buffers), the buffer is to be maintained in a “…natural condition, without any disturbance to or removal of vegetation…” In addition to removing large blocks of land from productive forest management (e.g., every 435.6 feet of buffer to a “high value wetland” removes one acre of land), the restrictions in this bill will make timber sale layout (especially if the property contains wetlands or a stream) extremely difficult and expensive.

After several work sessions on this bill, in early October the House Resources, Recreation, and Development Committee voted to recommend the full House kill this bill when they convene this week. The NHTOA supports this recommendation.

HB 1124 – This bill seeks to expand what wetlands would qualify for consideration as a “prime wetland.” A prime wetland is designated and voted on at the municipal level. Once designated “prime,” any activity on the wetland, including timber harvesting, requires a standard dredge and fill permit or a permit waiver from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (NHDES). Both of these permit processes can be cumbersome, require local government approval, and be expensive (e.g., hiring a hydrogeologist or wetland-soil scientist). Current law says a wetland must be at least 50 feet wide to qualify for consideration as a prime wetland. House Bill 1124 would allow wetlands below 50 feet wide to qualify “if the municipality can demonstrate that its narrower portions provide a significant contribution to the primary wetland function of the prime wetlands.” Given the vague interpretation of this standard (arguably any wetland could qualify), and the impact prime wetland designations have on forestry operations, the NHTOA will oppose this proposal.

HB 1441 – This is a proposal the NHTOA has seen several times before, removing the requirement a town perambulate their lines once every seven years. Because it is not uncommon for a municipal line to cross a landowner’s parcel, it is important to our members to know where these lines exist for taxation purposes (i.e., to which community do I pay timber tax?), and land use regulations. The NHTOA will oppose this bill.

HB 1414 – This bill will require abutter notification for any timber sale. The abutter notification would be part of the timber tax process. Although the sponsor’s intent is laudable, which is to prevent timber trespass by making neighbors aware a timber harvest is occurring next door, we do not believe this requirement will solve this problem. Instead, this requirement will add a significant administrative and financial burden to landowners and land managers. The NHTOA will be opposing this bill.

SB 159 and HB 1218 – Both of these bills seek to raise the net meter cap (i.e., the ability to self-generate electricity) from the current limit of 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts. An increasing number of the NHTOA’s wood processing members (e.g., sawmills) are looking to produce their own electricity through biomass boilers, solar arrays, or in some cases small hydro power. Most of these businesses need more than 1 megawatt of electricity, so the current cap is restricting their ability to self-generate. SB 159 is the Senate companion bill to the 2019 session bill, HB365, which the NHTOA supported, the Governor vetoed, and a veto override campaign failed to override. HB 1218 is the same bill filed for reconsideration this session. SB 159 came out of the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee vote with a recommendation the full House pass it. We do not anticipate this vote will occur until later this month. Because it is just starting the legislative process, House Bill 1218 will have its first public hearing later this month. The NHTOA supports both bills

HB 1478 – This bill seeks to remove a section of New Hampshire’s electricity contacting law promoting biomass power as a means of adding fuel diversity to the state’s energy mix. The NHTOA will oppose this bill.

HB 1364 – This bill proposes to eliminate the biomass class in the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law. Because this law still provides value to the remaining biomass power plants, the NHTOA will oppose this bill.

HB 1504 – This bill seeks to establish a study committee to explore the elimination of recreational trapping. Because trapping is an important management tool used to manage wildlife populations, and wildlife management dovetails with forest management, the NHTOA will oppose this narrowly defined bill, whose goal is to study “the feasibility of prohibiting recreational trapping in this state.”

HB 1126 -- This bill would prohibit the state from clear-cutting trees within 75 feet of the developed land of an abutter and requires the state to remove debris after it select-cuts trees from these areas. This bill was brought forward by a State Representative who didn’t like the “look” of a timber sale on a state forest near his home. The NHTOA believes New Hampshire already has adequate laws governing slash management and basal area retention. Moreover, the state of New Hampshire has a robust timber sale planning process in place that considers the silvicultural and wildlife management needs of the property while also considering other attributes of the property (e.g., aesthetics, recreational uses, cultural elements, etc.). Allowing neighbors to dictate which trees a landowner should be allowed to harvest based on their personal opinions of what “looks good” is a terrible precedent to set for any property (private or public). The NHTOA will oppose this bill.

HB 1532 – In the wake of last year’s biomass bill veto, several legislators introduced this bill to require a study of the forest products industry. Because the New Hampshire Division of Forest and Lands is already in the process of updating the statewide forest resources plan, the sponsors shifted the focus of HB 1532 to support the recommendations of the Forest Resources Plan. The NHTOA appreciates their support and will support this bill.