Planning Tools

Planning Tools for Forestland Conservation

Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) is currently working on a campaign to develop municipal planning strategies and workable tax relief and landowner incentive programs to reduce forest fragmentation and promote the ability of forest landowners to hold onto their land. Trends have shown that the phenomenon of forest fragmentation through parcelization (the subdivision of forestland into smaller and smaller pieces and multiple ownerships) is gaining momentum.

On a regional scale, between 1980 and 2005, approximately 23.8 million acres changed hands in the Northern Forest, an area nearly equal to the 26 million acre region. Even more alarming, 45% of the land transactions that occurred during this 25-year period occurred in the last five years. Within individual states in the region, the parcelization trend resulting from land ownership changes has become noticeable. For example, the number of non-industrial private landowners in Vermont has increased from an estimated 61,900 in 1983 to approximately 80,000 in 1993. At the same time, the average size of forest parcels is shrinking. This reflects a national trend of more people owning smaller pieces of wooded land, with the current average parcel size of 24 acres projected to decrease to 17 acres in 2010.

There are many implications of increasing forest fragmentation and parcelization including detrimental impacts to wildlife, watersheds, and vibrant healthy forests that can support timber production, recreation and ecological functions. An important mechanism to reduce the impacts of forest fragmentation and parcelization is municipal planning and zoning. For example, forestland conservation strategies can be developed through planning and zoning efforts to identify and conserve important forestland parcels while encouraging growth in appropriate locations and densities.

Vermont Natural Resources Council is interested in developing creative new planning and zoning strategies to promote forestland conservation in Vermont. VNRC would like to review forestland conservation planning strategies that exist in the state, ground truth their effectiveness, and where appropriate, help develop new planning templates for municipalities to reduce the effects of forest fragmentation and parcelization. VNRC is available to assist municipalities in the following ways:

· Work with local municipalities and residents to identify and map priority forestland resources and create a vision for forestland development and conservation in the community.

· Review the strengths and weaknesses of existing municipal planning and zoning strategies to conserve forestland and reduce the impacts of forest fragmentation and parcelization in rural resource lands.

· Develop new templates for municipal zoning bylaws and town plan policies that adequately identify and conserve important forestland parcels and forest resources such as wildlife habitat, watershed functions, recreation resources, timber production areas, etc. (Examples include effective forest reserve districts, municipal forest reserve designations, transferable development right programs, density bonuses for clustered development, etc.)

· Develop and/or strengthen subdivision regulations to adequately review the impacts of proposed development to forestland resources and ensure appropriate consideration of impacts that may not be covered under state review of development projects (projects outside the scope of Act 250, state permitting procedures for wetlands, impacts from ancient roads designations, etc.)

· Develop incentive based policies for landowners and developers to cluster development and maintain rural settlement patterns in town. Assist towns in designating growth centers if applicable.

· Inform municipalities of state and federal landowner assistance and incentive based programs designed to keep forestland and wildlife habitat intact and viable.

· Offer natural resource planning assistance on issues such as water quality and groundwater protection, wildlife habitat protection, municipal forest designation, and farm and forestland conservation.

Assisting municipalities with planning and zoning strategies for forestland conservation is part of a larger campaign at VNRC to study and identify trends in forest fragmentation and parcelization in the state. VNRC is currently conducting a roundtable discussion with over fifty experts in the state to identify the causes of forest fragmentation and parcelization and create workable solutions for landowners and municipalities to adequately plan for appropriate forestland conservation. VNRC also has a power point presentation on forest fragmentation and parcelization in Vermont, which can be brought to a local planning meeting or community forum.

The VNRC team consisting of Elizabeth Courtney – Executive Director, Jamey Fidel – Forest and Biodiversity Program Director and Legal Counsel, Jon Groveman – Water Program Director and Legal Counsel, and Stephen Holmes – Sustainable Communities Program Director, have extensive experience in municipal and natural resource conservation planning.