Forester speaks up for recreational property owners at the Capitol

forester in canoe

Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Coalition, says, "Our property tax code is one of the most environmentally destructive in the nation. We spend tens of millions of dollars trying to preserve our lakes and rivers, but our property tax system almost guarantees it will fail because the taxes are so high that property owners have to keep subdividing and building in order to hold on to a piece of it." (Submitted photo)

 

Politics In Minnesota

by Britt Robson
Published: July 13,2011 
Time posted: 3:37 pm

While the politicians continue to bicker and stonewall over the state budget at the Capitol this month, Jeff Forester is blissfully in the middle of nowhere, off on Pine Island up in Lake Vermillion.

The 49-year-old Forester has an intimate, longstanding relationship with the territory. At the turn of the 20th century, his great-great-grandfather claimed a piece of the island before he was killed while working in the Tower-Soudan mines. In an effort to establish a deeper intellectual and emotional connection with that legacy beyond his regular trips to the island, Forester wrote a  book, "Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods," in 2004. A finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, it has been highly praised for its comprehensive research, lively style and wide-ranging approach to the subject. It's fair to say that the land and people of northeastern Minnesota have etched some indelible grooves in his character and identity.

But other, very different grooves also dovetail into the mix. Although he cherishes his rural piece of the original family homestead, Forester spends most of his life residing in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis with his wife, Allison, who teaches middle-school math and dance, and their two children. He is a registered lobbyist at the Capitol in St. Paul. And while he hasn't written any tomes on the subject, he knows nearly as much about the vagaries of the property tax system in Minnesota as he does about the ecosystem up north.

This fascinating lifestyle is coated with a dull job title. In addition to being a freelance screenwriter, Forester is the executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Coalition Inc., a name so wretchedly banal that he is currently offering a $25 prize to the person who contacts the organization's website (www.msrpo.org) and suggests the best new moniker.

He was one of the first board members of the MSRPO, getting in on the ground floor because the organization was founded in 1994 by another property owner on Lake Vermillion who sent letters to his neighbors urging them to band together, mostly to fight high property taxes. Even before he ascended to become executive director in 2003, Forester continued focusing on reducing property taxes for the organization's 6,000 dues-paying members while adroitly broadening tax policy so that encourages more sustainable management of the land and water.

"Our property tax code is one of the most environmentally destructive in the nation," Forester says bluntly. "We spend tens of millions of dollars trying to preserve our lakes and rivers, but our property tax system almost guarantees it will fail because the taxes are so high that property owners have to keep subdividing and building in order to hold on to a piece of it."

With practiced élan, he spins a narrative that simultaneously tugs at the family heartstrings and slides pegs to the right side of the abacus. Family cabins "are heirlooms more than assets," with owners holding on to them for an average of 25 years (the longest in the upper Midwest) versus just seven years for a typical residential property. But high property taxes force people on fixed incomes to subdivide for piecemeal sales (the average lot size decreased from 78 acres in 2001 to 53 acres in 2006) or build more rental units, at a cost to the environment.

In response, the MRSPO successfully lobbied for passage of the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act (SFIA) in 2001, which provides a 35 percent property tax break for owners of woodland acreage who enter into an eight-year covenant that includes a sustainable forestry plan written with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Forester would like to see similar legislation to protect shorelines, but the momentum is going the other way, as the anti-tax Republican-majority Legislature repealed SFIA this session, making it one of the many items held in limbo by the budget stalemate.

Budget woes don't help property owners

Forester and his organization had better success earning legislative passage for a bill controlling the spread of aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels. "When we lose the ability to fish a lake because of invasive species, we are losing our brand nationally," he says. "Our members come from all over the country, and they don't come here for the winters. Sometimes we forget how uniquely beautiful this place is."

Of course, resolution of the bill to control aquatic invasive species is also subject to the final bargain over the budget. Forester says in these days of political polarization, it is a bonus to be able to lobby for bills that cut across party lines - it is not uncommon for both the environmentalists in the Sierra Club and the economic conservatives in the Minnesota Taxpayers League to simultaneously support the laws he is pushing.

The greater obstacle is the chronic budget deficits that make it increasingly difficult to free up revenue for new programs or tax relief. Forester and other MRSPO members have begun to consider better ways to use the contingencies for conservation and land management contained in the Legacy Amendment as a way to make progress toward their goals.

Then there are the more innovative, unconventional projects such as the "organic, free-range Christmas trees" Forester sold in partnership with Will Steger over the previous December holiday. The trees were culled from forests in overcrowded areas where fires were not desirable for land management, and consumers who returned them to the vendor after the holiday were assured that the trees would be recycled in the biofuels electricity plant in St. Paul.

Through it all, Forester strives to practice what he preaches, continuing to camp in a tent during his visits to Pine Island over the decades, and following the best water and land use practices he learned in the course of researching "Forest for the Trees." By the standards of most paid lobbyists, he earns a meager amount from his position at MRSPO, supplementing his (and his wife's) income by writing environmentally oriented screenplays.

The Forester File

Name: Jeff Forester

Age: 49

Job: Executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Coalition Inc.

Grew up in: Chicago

Lives in: Minneapolis

Education: B.A. in English and rhetoric from the University of Illinois, M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Oregon

Family: Wife, Allison; son, Billie, 11; and daughter, Daisy, 10

Odd job: Working on a farm owned by author Ken Kesey ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Sometimes A Great Notion") in Oregon

Added warmth comes into his voice as he talks about "the privilege of being able to talk to all these old goats who are longer around" while gathering material for the book. As someone who lives primarily in Minneapolis but has ties to the local Pine Island community that go back more than a century, he is motivated by the common ground.

"There can be an 'us-against-them' mentality between the seasonals and the locals, but cabin owners frequently sell their place in town when they retire; they very much care what happens up here," he says via cellphone from the island's shore. "Most of us want to be good stewards of the land. My job is to make that easier."

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