Commentary, Opinion

Vermont’s Forest Economy under Threat

By Katherine Sims

Editor’s note: Katherine Sims is a Democratic state representative in the Orleans-Caledonia district and the Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) of the Vermont House of Representatives, a tri-partisan group working together to advance legislation and policy initiatives that strengthen the economy in rural Vermont communities.

Working lands are central to Vermont’s identity. Vermont is the fourth most forested state with 4.5 million acres of forest covering a whopping 75% of the landscape. Vermonters have been working in the woods, playing in the woods, and using wood products for generations.

How we maintain our forests directly impacts our environment, our culture, our economy and our future. Forests provide habitat, carbon sequestration, clean water and clean air. They’re also the source of wood, that renewable material we use in our everyday lives. When we use wood for building, heating, and making things, we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, thus reducing emissions.

In order to reap the benefits of both standing forests and wood products, we need to make it practical for Vermonters to own and properly manage forestland.

Instead, we’re losing forestland at a rate of approximately 11,000 acres per year to development.

So what now?

To answer that question, a tripartisan group of over thirty legislators formed a summer study group and visited sites all over the state. Our group interviewed loggers, landowners, foresters, and business owners across Vermont’s forestry industry.

Among them were Chris Brooks, a fifth-generation lumberman, who owns Vermont Wood Pellet Co. in North Clarendon. Brooks told us that wood pellet heating is the future. Cleaner, more efficient and less expensive, heating with wood pellets reduces our dependence on fossil oil and keeps those dollars local.

Long View Forest is an employee-owned forest management operation in Westminster that’s bucking stereotypes about loggers. Their 20+ member crew of mostly young people are committed to helping clients meet the “near universal, but elusive goal of leaving the land better than we found it.”

Vermonters engaged in the industry today are environmentally conscious, innovative and prepared to collaborate in order to protect and preserve Vermont’s forests and forest economy. They view wood as a safe, renewable resource that’s greener than concrete, steel or plastic — a way to reduce our state’s carbon footprint.

A thriving, modern forest industry is Vermont’s best tool to ensure healthy, sustainable forests and healthy, sustainable communities. But Vermont’s forestry businesses face their own slew of threats. Conducting business is expensive, profits are down, interest in the field is declining and state regulations make it nearly impossible to succeed.

LSF Forest Products plays a vital role as one of only two remaining lumber mills in Franklin County. The family-owned operation wants to expand, but owner Tucker Riggs says Act 250’s permitting process is slowing them down: “It’s expensive and time-consuming, and has already delayed our expansion process at a time of record-high demand for our products.”

In order to support existing and potential forest-based businesses that are working to sustainably manage Vermont’s forestland, we recommend the Legislature establish the Vermont Forest Future program to stabilize and strengthen Vermont’s forest economy over 10 years. This program will bring together key stakeholders to create an action plan that identifies infrastructure investments and public policy recommendations that will increase economic development, sustainably manage wood resources, and develop the workforce for the future.

Additionally, we recommend:

  • Launch a program to support municipal fuel switching including modern wood heat
  • Modernize Act 250 for forest-based enterprises and recreational trails
  • Update transportation regulations related to forestry

We’ll be introducing these recommendations as a part of a rural omnibus bill at the start of the 2022 legislative session.

Decisions and actions made today will influence our forests and our economy for years to come. The state of Vermont already invests in agriculture, celebrates it and educates consumers about it. We must invest in and raise awareness about our vital forest industry, the other half of Vermont’s working lands. If we care about Vermont’s forests, if we care about Vermont’s rural communities, we must save Vermont’s forest economy.

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