Energy & Environment

Following a petition and a lawsuit, Agency of Natural Resources begins new public process for state lands

A cleared area in Groton State Forest. Photo courtesy of Zack Porter

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is embarking on a new process to create rules that will guide the agency’s public land management procedures. 

The move, announced last week by Julie Moore, who leads the agency, follows a petition — and more recently, a lawsuit — filed by the environmental group Standing Trees. Each asks the agency to engage in a rulemaking process that would allow the public to weigh in on the system the state uses to manage public lands. 

Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees, which advocates for the protection of forests on public land, said the organization doesn’t plan to drop the lawsuit in response to Moore’s announcement.

About 8% of Vermont lands are public, according to the lawsuit, and the state is required by state law to maintain that land with multiple goals in mind. However, the lawsuit contends that without the rules, leaders of departments within the Agency of Natural Resources aren’t accountable to those goals and can instead prioritize managing forests for timber harvests. 

Moore said she thinks the framework the agency has already developed, and under which it has operated for years, is lawful. 

“That said, we will move forward with this rulemaking initiative,” she said. “I think, frankly, there's always value in engaging the public in conversations about the management of public lands.”

Moore said the process is underway. She said her staff has already started engaging in internal conversations to develop a proposal that they will bring to the public, but she is not sure how long it will take before the official process will begin. 

The lawsuit also claims that, absent the rulemaking process, the public is denied access to a holistic conversation about how the state manages land — a claim that Moore disputes.

“I feel strongly that our agency works hard to fulfill our statutorily required mandate, which is to manage and plan for the use of publicly owned plans for a variety of different uses,” Moore said. 

That includes everything from timber harvests to recreation to fish and wildlife conservation, she said, noting that each public land management plan includes opportunities for the public to comment. 

“The suggestion that somehow the public is closed out of these conversations, to me, is one I find frustrating, I guess,” she said.

However, she believes it is “best practice to have rulemaking where rulemaking is called for, and so we'll go through that process.”

Porter, of Standing Trees, called Moore’s announcement “too little, too late.” 

“It's a mystery why it took a lawsuit for the state to begin this process, if it knew that this was important to do, and necessary,” he said.

While the public is able to comment on individual management plans, Porter said that process is insufficient because the public has been denied access to the “recipe” for the public land management process for decades. 

“Our lawsuit will move forward to ensure that the public has a real seat at the table, that this happens in a timely manner, and that the state doesn't continue to take our public lands down the wrong path while this is playing out over some uncertain timeframe and with an uncertain outcome,” Porter said.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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