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This Year’s Big Victories and Big Picture for Vermont’s Forests

By Brian Shupe

In Vermont, we sometimes fail to see the forests for the trees, and understandably so. With nearly 80% of the state being forested, it’s easy to take for granted that the forests have always been here (they haven’t: 80% of the state was cleared by the middle of the 19th century).

And it’s easy to presume that forests will always provide the economic, ecological, and cultural benefits we have enjoyed for the past several decades. The future of Vermont’s forests is, however, in our hands. Fortunately, a series of bills recently signed into law give us more tools and choices to keep Vermont’s forests healthy in the decades to come.

The benefits of, and challenges facing, the state’s forest lands are well documented, most recently in the Vermont Forest Fragmentation Report prepared last year by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. I wrote about that report in a Weekly Planet column last December.

The report explained in detail how forest fragmentation – the incremental whittling down of large tracts of forest land into smaller and smaller parcels divided by roads, driveways and house sites – can undermine the many benefits that forests provide.

For example, fragmentation makes the active management of forestland more difficult and more expensive. This is important considering that the forest products industry adds $1.4 billion to the state’s economy and employs over 10,000 Vermonters.

Fragmentation also harms several native species of wildlife through diminished habitat and the introduction of invasive species. It reduces a forest’s ability to filter water, resulting in sedimentation that diminishes water quality, and reduces forests’ ability to retain water from major storm events, making the state less resilient to climate change. And, smaller parcels under separate ownership are much more likely to result in posting, restricting access for traditional recreational activities like hunting, hiking and backcountry skiing.

Why revisit this topic now? Because this year the Vermont legislature took several steps to address these issues through a package of legislation that, collectively, represents the first significant attempt to address the health and viability of Vermont’s forest land in several decades.

This past week, Governor Shumlin signed three bills into law. The first deals with timber trespass – the act of going onto someone’s land without permission and stealing their trees. Unfortunately, timber theft happens, and landowners have been left holding the bag. Until now, this has not been treated as a serious crime in Vermont, and enforcement has been very weak, leaving landowners to have to file civil lawsuits to recover damages. The new law and the specter of jail time will hopefully deter the small number of bad actors who are negatively impacting the broader reputation of the forestry profession.

The second bill requires licensing for professional foresters. Common in other states, this bill will help foresters stay up to speed with best management practices through continuing education classes. Like timber trespass, professional standards protect foresters from the few bad actors posing as professional foresters, and provide greater assurances to landowners to hire the right people to plan and oversee timber harvests on their property.

Finally, the Governor signed into law H.857, an omnibus forest bill that will promote our forest economy and the health and viability of our forests through several measures. Perhaps most importantly, it will elevate the importance, through local and regional planning, of maintaining intact forests and wildlife habitat.

Communities and regional planning commissions will now be asked to identify important large blocks of contiguous forests, and the areas that facilitate wildlife travel between those blocks, and to plan for development in those identified areas in a way that minimizes fragmentation and promotes the health, viability, and ecological function of forests.

H.857 includes other provisions, including policies that support the viability of working forests at the municipal level. It also creates incentives for landowners to donate land for public use.

And, it sets in place a process for identifying strategies to help landowners plan for the long-term stewardship and ownership of their forests. This is important since the average age of forest landowners in Vermont is well over 55, and a projected 17% of landowners owning over 10 acres plan to sell or transfer land in the next 5 years. H.857 will help the state build a program to help more forest landowners plan for the long-term stewardship and ownership of their land.

Vermont is fortunate that, after nearly destroying Vermont’s rich forest resources, natural processes allowed our forests to recover and once again define our state. The legislature – with exceptional support from Commissioner of Forests Parks and Recreation Michael Snyder, a coalition of state conservation and environmental advocacy organizations, and forest landowners and professional foresters – took some important and meaningful steps to ensure we don’t take that for granted, and that communities, landowners, and professionals have better tools to keep Vermont forest strong.