For the first time since the mid-1800s, Vermont and the other New England states are experiencing a decline in forest cover, threatening the region’s landscape. A number of recent studies show that our forests are under increasing pressure from rural sprawl and subdivisions.
This is worrisome for many reasons, as healthy forests are an important part of Vermont’s traditions, culture, and economy. In particular, healthy forests provide many benefits, including protecting Vermont’s water quality, and its rivers and streams. Forestland is also essential to Vermont’s economy and way-of-life. Forests play a critical role in our manufacturing, recreation, and tourism sectors. They mitigate the impacts of climate change by absorbing and storing carbon, regulating rainfall and providing flood control. Access to trails and the outdoors contributes to Vermont’s ranking as one of the healthiest states in the country. Finally, forests are the backbone of Vermont rural values and traditions, providing critical habitat for our wildlife but also allowing a unique connection with the land for those that hunt, sugar, produce forest products, and make their living from the land.
The Shumlin administration has successfully shined a spotlight on the problem of forest fragmentation. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, led by Commissioner Michael Snyder, produced several reports on the threats our forests are facing, and provided potential solutions to better protect these invaluable resources and the forest economy over the long-term.
At this time, a package of forest-related bills passed the Vermont House and are now under consideration in the Vermont Senate as H.857. This legislation is an important first step, and also sets the stage for further work over the summer and fall to explore additional ways we can protect our forests and working lands.
This legislation matters for many reasons. The bill encourages better local and regional planning for intact, healthy forests and wildlife habitat, and it implements steps to maintain the long-term viability of working forests at the municipal level. In turn, through better municipal and regional planning, we can help slow forest fragmentation by considering how future development can enhance both thriving communities and healthy forests.
Further, the bills will help deter timber theft, and start a conversation about another major threat: the large-scale transfer of land ownership anticipated in the coming years due to our aging landowner population. According to the National Woodland Owners Survey conducted by the Forest Service, of the approximate 40,000 landowners in Vermont owning more than 10 acres or more, nearly 7,000, or 17% of them plan to sell or transfer their land in the next 5 years.
A central part of Governor Shumlin’s environmental legacy is his work on water quality, and this legislation is the logical next step to the Vermont Clean Water Act (Act 64) enacted last year. The Lake Champlain pollution plan includes a goal of no net loss of forest cover. This legislation will help us better maintain our forests, and help landowners protect their forests and implement best management practices for maintaining water quality on our working landscape.
We applaud the Governor for his administration’s attention to this important issue, and his team’s work to advance better protections for our forests. We encourage all Vermonters to let their legislators know they support this bill because we all have our reasons why healthy forests matter to us.
Elizabeth Humstone, chairperson, Vermont Natural Resource Council board of directors
Walter Poleman, chairman, Vermont Land Trust Board of Trustees
Richard Heilemann, chairman, The Nature Conservancy Vermont chapter board of trustees
Curt Alpeter, Audubon Vermont board of trustees
Patricia Crawford, chairperson, The Trust for Public Land Vermont advisory board
Kinny Perot, chairperson, Vermont Conservation Voters board of directors