Scott administration questions rationale for Silvio O. Conte Refuge expansion

moose, Nulhegan Basin, Silvio O. Conte
A moose at the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Essex County. The West Mountain Wildlife Management Area is just south of the Nulhegan Basin. Photo by David Govatski/USFWS via Flickr

Scott administration officials say they are not trying to reverse plans by the federal government to expand the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

But in a letter to the federal government, Gov. Phil Scott echoes the logging industry when he says he’s “very apprehensive about the federal government acquiring additional land for the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge.”

The governor’s sentiments are likely to find a receptive audience at the Department of the Interior. Secretary Ryan Zinke, a fellow Republican, is currently reviewing the nation’s conserved lands.

The Scott administration is merely trying to learn more about the plan, according to spokesperson Rebecca Kelley.

“The goal here is to understand what some of the impacts would be,” Kelley said. “This is about some fact-finding on our end.”

The final plan detailing the refuge’s expansion was released in August 2015. It was approved in January after multiple public comment periods. The plan took a decade to develop.

The planned expansion will add about 50,000 acres in Vermont to the refuge. Currently Silvio O. Conte totals about 37,000 acres, spread over four states. Of that area, 26,000 acres are in Essex County.

Scott wants to know how land will be acquired, how landowners will be affected, and what will happen to the “productivity” of the land once it is placed under federal protection, Kelley said.

Julie Moore
State Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Julie Moore, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said Scott “is in no way opposed to conservation,” and is “not fundamentally” opposed to the Conte refuge expansion, so long as it’s in line with the state’s priorities, she said.

Heather Furman, head of The Nature Conservancy’s Vermont branch, said the public overwhelmingly favors conservation, as numerous polls and studies have demonstrated.

She says it is unfortunate that Scott seems to have written his letter based largely on the say-so of the timber industry.

Scott’s interests as governor seem to center around economics, she said, and Scott himself boasts in his letter to Zinke that he sees the world through that lens.

“I think the governor’s heart is in the right place — I think he understands the value Vermonters place on our land and our forests, and [on] all the services those lands provide for people: I believe he genuinely understands that,” she said. “But I think the concerns he’s raised come from a fairly narrowly defined view of what our forests are doing for Vermonters.”

Furman said she hopes that before Scott takes any action on the matter that he’ll try to learn about all the other economic opportunities Vermont’s forests offer.

Bill Sayre, who co-owns Bristol-based A. Johnson Lumber, says advocates for the refuge “mean no harm to working forests and [to] people who earn a living from working forests — they simply don’t understand the harm of reducing the resource base.”

If the U.S. Department of the Interior owns land in Vermont, that land will necessarily be less productive than it would be under private ownership, and will therefore reduce the state’s resource base, Sayre said.

“What we know from experience with the Department of the Interior is that once land passes from private forest to government-owned forest, productivity collapses and [the land] disappears from the resource base,” he said.

This hasn’t always been the case, he said. In recent decades, he said, the federal government has swung too far in the opposite direction. The federal government suffered a reasonable backlash in the 1990s, for instance, brought about by extreme productivity that timber companies realized on public lands in the Northwest through cheap prices offered by the Department of the Interior.

But federal policy now leans too far toward conservation, Sayre said, and as a result, timber companies won’t make enough money from land conserved under the refuge as they would from land still privately held.

That will hurt the logging industry and rural communities, Sayre said.

Loggers don’t need more obstacles, said Robbo Holleran, a forester and the president of the Vermont Forest Products Association.

The average Vermont logger is in his 50s, Holleran said, and there aren’t a lot of younger loggers entering the industry. The number of loggers in the state has declined from as many as 2,000 just 15 years ago, he said, to around 1,000 today.

Vermont loggers face inordinately high worker’s compensation costs, Holleran has testified to the Legislature, and he said this week that they’re threatened not just by increasing mechanization of their trade but also by cheap wood from Canada.

Further, many loggers this year operated at a loss, because the intense rain made it hard for them to work, Sayre said.

“That’s why people feel the last thing we need to do is take private forest land out of the resource base, which is only going to make the situation worse,” he said.

Sayre said blocking the Conte plan comports with the governor’s priorities — making Vermont more affordable, expanding the economy, and protecting the most vulnerable — in part because, along with farmers, loggers “could definitely be considered vulnerable.”

James Ehlers, a prominent clean-water advocate and Democratic candidate for governor, says concerns about removing the land from local property tax rolls is also an issue.

The federal government pays only a fraction of the property tax to towns, Ehlers said. If the feds buy up tens of thousands of acres of rural land, that’s likely to hurt some rural towns, he said.

“I don’t know the answers, because [the federal government] under the Trump administration is not likely to keep any commitments, given the Republican Party’s objective to dismantle public services,” Ehlers said. “Scott is right to be skeptical of his Republican friends.”

Sayre and Holleran both said it’s important to keep land slated for the refuge in private hands, they said, because government scientists do a bad job of logging enough timber to ensure the forests are healthy.

Jim Shallow, director of the Audubon Society’s Vermont chapter, said conservation will protect species.

“Vermont has some of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country,” he said. “We have a global contribution to wildlife diversity. Protecting large [swaths of land] like the Conte is a huge benefit to birds over the long run.”

In the summer, to breed, birds migrate from South America and other far-flung locales to the Connecticut River, which they follow upstream to Vermont, he said.

“Protecting breeding habitat is one of the key strategies to reversing these declines,” Shallow said, and protecting large uninterrupted tracts — like the Conte refuge offers — are among the best ways of protecting that habitat.

Vermont’s forests are increasingly being fragmented, though, as owners of large properties break them into smaller parcels and sell them, according to a report that the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation published last year.

And in what is perhaps a related development, Vermont in recent years saw the first decline in forest acreage that the state’s experienced in the past 100 years, Shallow said.

“These are disturbing trends,” he said. “Having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service being there as a resource for us to address that loss is important.”

But the economics are important as well, he said: Vermont leads the country in the percentage of the population that watch birds and wildlife, and it’s second only to Alaska in the percentage of people who hunt, fish and view wildlife.

The Conte refuge is an opportune place to do all three activities, Shallow said, and it’s a big draw for tourists who are vital to the state’s economy.

Forest-based recreation and tourism actually brings $1.9 billion into the state each year, said Jamey Fidel, the Vermont Natural Resource Council’s general counsel and forest and wildlife program director.

The governor’s attempting to stoke Vermont’s outdoor-recreation economy still further, and wildlife refuges are exactly the sort of thing that would accomplish that, Fidel said.

The refuge would expand by offering landowners fair-market value for their properties once they decide to sell — and only when landowners decide to sell, Fidel said, which is one reason why the refuge could actually help Vermont’s farmers.

“We think it makes a lot of sense for landowners struggling or looking to preserve their land to have a funding source” should they decide to sell, Fidel said, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the refuge, would provide that funding.

These ideas were hashed out over the 10-year planning process that led to the approval of the refuge’s expansion plans, Fidel said.

“It’s concerning to us and disappointing, that the governor submitted that letter,” Fidel said. “We wish it had reflected more of that comprehensive input made by Vermonters… We still hope there’s room for the governor to learn about some of the other perspectives.”

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