Lawmakers are considering a bill to curb forest fragmentation by requiring a permit for development within contiguous forests.
Thursday, foresters urged lawmakers to strengthen the state’s current land conservation program instead.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee is drafting a bill designed to protect Vermont’s aesthetic beauty and wildlife habitat by requiring an Act 250 permit to develop forestland under certain conditions.
Several foresters testified before the committee Thursday that the bill could have unintended consequences that could be avoided if the state strengthened the Current Use program, a policy designed to preserve land as working farms and forests through tax breaks.
Daniel H. Hudnut, a professional forester with Wagner Forest Management, said the bill uses the coarse tool of Act 250 and would likely create added costs and uncertainty for foresters already struggling to keep up in a rural economy.
“The purpose is reasonable, but the means are flawed,” he told the committee.
Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said there will be no vote on the bill until the details are fleshed out.
“There is a lot of suggestion that it doesn’t do what it’s intended to do,” he said.
He said the departments of Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Recreation are both working to address the widely acknowledged problem of forest fragmentation, a process by which development creates isolated patches of forest.
The bill, as amended, requires an Act 250 permit for development on 1,000-acre lots of continuous forestland within 1,000 feet of existing development.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, the bill’s lead sponsor, was not present for Thursday’s committee meeting.
Act 250, the state’s land use and development law, is a quasi-judicial permit process conducted through the state’s nine District Environmental Commissions. The permit’s criteria include development requirements that meet pollution, soil, water quality and aesthetic standards.
Put Blodgett, president of Vermont Woodlands Association and a tree farmer who owns 670 acres of forest in Bradford, opposes the permit requirement.
“Having served on a District Environmental Commission in central Vermont and later as chair of the commission dealing with Quechee lakes, I shudder at the idea of burdening barely profitable forest land with the expense and time involved in going through Act 250,” he told the committee.
Blodgett, who also co-chairs the Current Use Tax Coalition, said the state’s Current Use program should be strengthened.
“Rather than holding this stick over our heads, why not use the carrot of a stronger UVA program, more support for working lands and the incentive of tax savings for conservation easements?” he said.
The state’s Current Use, or Use Value Appraisal (UVA) program, taxes land based on its use, such as forestry or farming, rather than its fair market value.
Jonathan Wood, former secretary for the Agency of Natural Resources and forestry consultant, said the state’s Current Use program should make preserving forests profitable.
“Current use if the best tool we have right now,” he told the committee.
“You want a stable, predictable system for long term investment in forestland,” he said, restating what he has told former Gov. Jim Douglas, who later vetoed a bill to add fees and penalties to the program.
Jamey Fidel, forest and wildlife program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said there is a role for Act 250 to address forest fragmentation.
“We understand that it’s a delicate balancing act; on how to respect property rights, but also understand how we can review and limit the amount of fragmentation in a way where Act 250 can play a meaningful role,” Fidel said in an interview after the hearing.