SPRINGFIELD - Legislation drafted to preserve the state's woodlands by giving landowners a tax break on their timbered acres was unanimously approved by lawmakers Friday.
The measure will ensure that wooded tracts of 5 acres or larger are not deemed to be commercial or residential properties, and thus subject to a higher property tax.
One of the measure's sponsors state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said Thursday the proposal could mean the difference of $50 per acre in property taxes versus $1 or $2 per acre.
The legislation, Senate Bill 17, passed in the House and now heads back to the Senate for final approval.
Lawmakers gathered Thursday in the Capitol with representatives from a handful of special interest groups to tout the plan.
Sullivan said differing county-by-county definitions of farmland are forcing some landowners to try to farm poor agricultural land or sell their wooded property in the hope of avoiding a higher tax.
Sullivan said the plan would affect only those tracts of nonresidential land of 5 acres or more, and the potential tax savings are significant.
The legislation is the product of hearings by a task force that began meeting last December.
State Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, said he has received hundreds of phone calls from constituents scared about losing their timbered land because they could not afford to pay more in property taxes.
Jones warned that the clearcutting of property to have it valued as farmland presents a threat to the environment.
"We all know how valuable trees are to our environment. Some of this land does not need to be in production," he said. "Quite frankly, it will be (washed) in our rivers if we start farming it, and we don't want that."
Todd Vandermyde, spokesman for the Illinois State Rifle Association, said Illinois has some of the best hunting in the nation, but not enough of the land is preserved as wooded.
"The impact not having this (legislation) would have is that you would see a lot of ground that people currently allow hunting on to be clearcut, and you would lose that habitat," Vandermyde said. "The last thing we need to be doing in Illinois these days is losing the hunting grounds that we have access to."