Vermont's forests provide great value. They serve as habitat for wildlife and a source of renewable fuel. They are the foundation of our forest economy, creating jobs and providing raw materials for construction and manufacturing. Woodlands filter rainfall runoff, thereby improving the water quality of lakes and rivers. Their intake and storage of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen help to mitigate climate change. Forests provide an environment for recreation for Vermonters and for visitors.
But there are problems. Changes in global economic conditions adversely affect the economic yield from our timber harvest. There need to be more ways to process and use wood here in Vermont. Costs for energy and insurance for loggers are high, and there are not enough training programs to bring along young loggers. There are no quick and easy answers to such problems. We may need to make investments in better management, better training programs, and more infrastructure.
Right now there are a number of bills in the Legislature that involve how forestry is regulated. I am concerned that we have not struck a good balance of rights and responsibilities in this area, and that regulations are not well-enforced. The result may be that neither forests, forestry, nor Vermonters as a whole are properly protected.
Forest fragmentation means that forest parcels tend to get smaller over time as property is sold or inherited, and it becomes harder to manage them productively for timber. This also can break up crucial wildlife habitat. Development of house lots at the edges of working forests or as lots within them breaks up stands of harvestable timber, and may lead to conflicts between homeowners and loggers or forestry processing. The state's answer to these issues will likely be to require Towns to regulate land use to protect large blocks of forest land (H.789).
Logging and forestry are lightly regulated by Vermont through the Acceptable Management Practices that largely concern protection of water quality from excess sedimentation and excess nutrients. However enforcement by the Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation is based on complaints – there is no systematic inspection of all timber harvest jobs. The state does not even know how many logging jobs are being done, or where, or how well, or how much water pollution may be connected to logging. Someone has to notice an apparent violation and have both the knowledge and nerve to call in a complaint for the state to even get anyone to check on a situation. And the state does not regulate side effects like noise at all.
The state's answer to these problems is twofold. One bill will begin a program of VOLUNTARY notification by landowners of timber harvests so that state regulators can know more about what logging is actually taking place (H.857). Another bill prohibits any local regulation of logging and forestry (H.851), even of noise, or hours of operation, or setbacks, or exhaust fumes. This despite the fact that these potential negative effects on neighbors are not regulated by the state.
A small number of loggers perpetrate timber trespass and timber theft: taking trees that were not supposed to be taken and failing to pay for them, or taking trees from a neighboring property where they were not supposed to cut at all. The bill H.854 makes the unlawful cutting of timber a crime and makes it easier to recover damages. But the bill does nothing to ensure better documentation of the logs actually taken to the log yard — this was seen as too onerous — which means that a landowner might have a hard time knowing for sure how many logs were taken from their property.
I have supported the bills referred to above as they passed the House. But I think that the state needs to do a better job enforcing its own regulations on logging in order to protect water quality. The State has clearly failed to protect water quality in its lack of enforcement and regulation of agriculture — is the same thing unfolding with forestry? We cannot now know. I also find it very interesting that the state is going to require Towns to regulate land use to prevent forest fragmentation and to protect wildlife, but it does not protect landowners in the "quiet enjoyment of property," and prohibits Towns from providing such protection. Kind of ironic to be required to regulate to protect wildlife habitat but prevented from regulating to protect human habitat. While I understand the difficulty that a patchwork of different municipal regulations could cause for forestry and logging, ignoring the rights of neighbors does not make any legitimate grievances vanish. I also find it ironic that the state claims to regulate forestry but the Department of Forestry and Parks does not know how many logging jobs are underway nor does it systematically inspect those it does know about: this does have to change.
To learn more about the conditions of our forests and forestry a report about forest fragmentation can be found on the website of the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation. A report with "Recommendations in Support of Forest Health and Integrity" can be found on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy website.
Anyone who is planning to have logging done who does not have experience in this area should work with a qualified forester, or contact the county forester or the Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation for guidance. This can help to ensure that a landowner's financial interests and the integrity of their woodlands are protected.
Cynthia Browning is a state representative to the Legislature from the district which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland, and Sandgate.