Environment

Weyerhaeuser settles tax fight with state for $375,000 over forest clear cuts

Timber giant Weyerhaeuser has agreed to pay Vermont $375,000 for cutting too many trees from a property enrolled in a program that grants tax breaks for forestlands.

The deal settles a high-stakes case against the company stemming from a 2010 incident. But it leaves unresolved a question about taxation of land whose owner violates the rules of the program.

The settlement leaves the affected Northeast Kingdom property in Vermont’s current use program, which gives large landowners tax relief in exchange for following land management practices meant to preserve forests.

The Vermont Supreme Court said Weyerhaeuser should be booted from the program last year for violating a management plan for a 140-acre tract on 56,600 acres in Caledonia and Essex counties.

State and county foresters had found that loggers employed by Plum Creek Maine Timberlands — which Weyerhaeuser purchased last year — cut the tract to less than half the density allowed. Some described it as essentially a clear-cut.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to decide whether the company should lose its tax break for the entire 56,600 acres or only the 140-acre tract where the violation occurred.

The consequences could have been severe, said Kyle Landis-Marinello, an assistant attorney general.

If the entire parcel were deemed ineligible for current use, Weyerhaeuser would have needed to pay as much as $170,000 more each year in property taxes.

Rather than leave the outcome to a court, Weyerhaeuser and the attorney general’s office agreed the company will pay $375,000 to settle the question.

The entire 56,600-acre piece of Weyerhaeuser land is now enrolled in the current use program, after Weyerhaeuser filed a compliance report this month with the state’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said Landis-Marinello.

The case has drawn interest over the years from legislators.

Under current law, a violation renders an entire plot ineligible for the program for five years.

In 2011, state Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, tried without success to pass a law that would have removed only immediately affected acreage from the current use program in the event of a violation. Three violations would have gotten the entire plot removed from the program.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Mark Doty said the company is “pleased to have this 2010 matter behind us” and that the company’s employees pride themselves on their forestry practices.

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  • James Leopold

    I don’t know what the $350,000 fine is based on, but I would like to see a fine or penalty of at least twice the monetary gain from the illegal activity to punish the offender, and minimize the chance of this kind of activity reoccurring.

    • Edward Letourneau

      The penalty you propose would end logging in Vermont — which already has work compensation costs that take about 50 cents for every dollar paid to loggers.

  • Bill Gee

    Weyerhaeuser “prides itself” as long as someone is “watching”. If nobody is watching them, then all bets are off and they’ll clear cut as much as they can get away with.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Weyerhauser practices what most Vermonters have learned over the years, that it is easier and cheaper to ask forgiveness than permission.

  • Charlie Messing

    Vermont should take care of what forests remain. It is ten times better at removing trees than replacing them. New York looks much better, and their trees look much better. The time has passed for clear-cutting.

    • Matt Young

      “Of what forests remain”. We have a lot more forest than we did in the past.