Managing our forests

By Rep. Mike Yantachka

Vermont’s forests are vital for humans and the ecosystem. They protect water, soil and air quality and provide rural jobs and a multitude of useful forest products, as well as flood protection. When European settlers first came to Vermont, the land was almost completely forested. Settlement led to clearing 80% of the forests until the 20th century when they began to grow back. As recently as 2011 Vermont’s landscape was back to 80% forested, but latest measurements have shown a decline to 75%. Furthermore, significant parts of existing forests are becoming fragmented, that is, disconnected islands of forests which isolate or exclude wildlife.

Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR) has focused on developing policies to promote and protect forest health and maintain the value of Vermont’s working forestlands. For the last month, my colleagues and I on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee have been working on several bills to achieve the objectives stated by FPR. Weeks of testimony from FPR, foresters, loggers, landowners, environmental organizations and our legislative council, have allowed us to craft legislation with unanimous committee support. As of this writing, two of the bills, H.857 and H.852, have won passage by the House and three others are being reviewed by other committees.

H.857 allows FPR to collect timber harvest data and assist landowners with proper forestry practices and fair payment for harvested timber. It sets up a voluntary program that encourages landowners to notify FPR when a timber harvest will take place. Upon notification FPR can provide advice on the value of the timber as well as information on proper harvest management and best practices for logging operations to protect the landowner from substandard work. Proper harvesting can provide lasting value to the landowner by maintaining a healthy forest well into the future.

H.852 updates regulations and fees for maple sap collection on state lands. The current fee schedule is based on the quality of the syrup produced based on the obsolete grading system. H.852 simplifies the fee schedule by charging a per tap fee set by the commissioner of FPR. The bill also exempts land acquired by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) from the land use change tax which is assessed when privately held land is taken out of “current use.” Without this exemption, the state would be taxing itself. Finally, the bill sets up a study committee to develop recommendations for a statewide program to encourage succession planning by forestland owners. As the landowner population ages, we want to encourage keeping forestland intact well into the future through conservation incentives.

H.851 provides a right to conduct forestry just as there is a right to conduct agriculture in state law. It provides a list of specific forestry operations that are presumed not to create a public or private nuisance if the activity complies with the Accepted Management Practices for water quality on logging jobs as well as other applicable law such as the heavy cut law. It allows the operation to be contested by showing that it has a substantial adverse impact on health, safety or welfare, or significantly interferes with the use and enjoyment of neighboring properties. The bill also provides that municipalities cannot regulate forestry operations with certain exceptions related to land development.

H.854, another landowner protection bill, relates to “timber trespass” or stealing timber. It clarifies the civil penalties for the unlawful removal of timber and makes it a crime for someone to knowingly and deliberately cut timber without the owner’s permission. Under current law, such theft is considered a misdemeanor and is subject only to civil action brought by the landowner.

Finally, H.855 amends how town Forest Fire Wardens are appointed and updates their compensation from FPR, how towns are reimbursed by the state for the costs of forest fire suppression, and how permits are issued for open burning. Forest fires on land owned by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) will have all costs incurred by a town reimbursed at a rate determined by the commissioner. Fires solely on town land will be reimbursed at the discretion of the commissioner who is directed to establish a policy for reimbursement. Fires partially on town land and ANR land will be reimbursed proportionately.

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802) 233-5238 or by email myantachka.dfa@gmail.com or visit www.MikeYantachka.com.