Beyond the Trees

Beyond the Trees


This commentary ran in the June 26, 2016 Rutland Herald

By Elizabeth Courtney

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, wrote about the new forest integrity bill for the Weekly Planet, “Seeing the forest and the trees.” In his article he gave an overview of three bills which are now signed into law. I’d like to follow up on that fine report with a little context on the evolution of the work to protect our forests over the past decade and the importance of follow-through to the mission’s success.

In the decades-long Vermont effort to strengthen the health of our forests, House Bill 857, just signed into law by the governor, is the latest major step in securing economic viability for Vermont forests. Jamey Fidel, forest program director at VNRC, has been a leader in this focused work, which will benefit not only our forests, but our water and air quality, land and energy resources — and just about every aspect of the quality of life we enjoy here in Vermont.

It was August 2006 when the Roundtable on Parcelization and Forest Fragmentation in Vermont was convened by the VNRC to bring together diverse stakeholders interested in the continued health of Vermont’s forest resources.

VNRC, with the backing and support of its funders, took the initiative to bring a diverse group together to identify the causes of forest fragmentation and to help reduce its effects in Vermont. We were encouraged to see over 100 people representing a broad array of public and private interests participate in the first Forest Roundtable. Participants included consulting foresters, professional planners, government officials, landowners, sportsmen, representatives from the forest products industry, conservation groups, biomass energy organizations and public and private universities and colleges.

Awareness of the key role forests play in our lives grew. By 2009 the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change had identified Vermont forests as a major carbon sink and recommended that they be maintained and managed for their greatest carbon consumption potential.

By the fall of 2011 and in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the role of the forested landscape to provide the resilience and flexibility needed to weather the storms of a climate-changing world was painfully understood. The undeveloped land of a forested hillside proved to be a land use far more resilient to the ravages of climate change than one that puts acres of impervious surfaces on the land.

Around the same time, several organizations led by the Vermont Council on Rural Development created the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. The partnership has developed an action plan for a Vermont campaign to support local agriculture and forestry, incubate and attract farm and forest entrepreneurs, and conserve Vermont’s working landscape for the next generation.

In 2014 the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation published a report that emphasized and restated the 1960s state planning policy mantra — to balance Vermont’s anticipated growth with our interest in maintaining a traditional settlement pattern — with village centers surrounded by fields, farms and healthy, working forests. The report states that in order to protect the integrity of Vermont’s forests, in addition to other important actions, it should consider additional tools for local governments and the state to discourage development that converts blocks of forest to other uses.

That brings us to the 2016 signing of the Vermont Forest Integrity legislation, which is designed to maintain working forests and help landowners keep their forests over multiple generations. The bill also calls for a study committee on land use regulation and forest integrity. Its job is to consider potential revisions to Act 250 and to Vermont’s planning statutes to protect contiguous areas of forestland from fragmentation and promote connectivity between forested lands.

Over the years, Vermonters have grown to value the forests, not just for the trees, but for their beneficial effect on water and air quality, their ability to create a climate-change-resilient landscape and generate a healthier land use pattern of town and city surrounded by working landscapes.

This August marks the 10th anniversary of the Forest Roundtable’s good efforts to protect our vital forests. It has accomplished hero’s work in bringing awareness of the value of our forests for water quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, a healthy forest economy and many other values. Now, the study committee — with the help of the Roundtable — has an important task to complete to ground this knowledge in law. We should all support its work and expect clear thinking, creative solutions and lasting results. After all, our healthy forests have value beyond the trees.

Elizabeth Courtney is an environmental consultant and the former executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She can be contacted at