Ciara McEneany is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Environmental advocates across the state head into this year’s legislative session with the goal of updating Act 250 — Vermont's land use and development law — to protect one of the state’s biggest natural resources: working forests.
Advocates believe the wide-ranging 1970 law doesn't sufficiently regulate the impacts of large development on forest lands, causing mass forest fragmentation and loss, according to Jamey Fidel, forest and wildlife director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a nonprofit.
“There's no real attention to whether there's going to be any future role of that forest when the land is being developed, as well as (it) being available as working lands,” Fidel said. “Will they be able to provide habitat for wildlife (in addition to preserving timber sources)? So, this is a way of zooming out and saying, let's focus on some good site design.”
In the last decade Vermont has lost up to 10,000 acres per year of its forests due to permanent development and suburban sprawl, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“Our policies in Vermont haven't caught up to this change in trajectory and trend,” said David Mears, executive director of Vermont Audubon Society, the conservation nonprofit focused on birds and their habitats. “There's a couple of different ways in which we can lose these forests: They can be lost to permanent development, which is the worst-case scenario. Box stores, subdivisions and the like are a permanent loss of forest land as well.”
In the past environmental groups have tried getting multiple bills on the issue of forest fragmentation through the legislature, including last session’s H.606, which made it through the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott.
“The bill would have put us on a path to protecting 30% of Vermont's landscape by 2030, 50% by 2050, including 10% of the state,” said Zack Porter, executive director of the activist group Standing Trees, which aims to protect and restore forests in New England.
“And (the bill would set) a goal for 10% of the state to be put into wild lands management,” Porter continued. “But 10% compared to the 3% (that is conserved) today would be a major step forward. We know we must do this if we want to keep the biodiversity that we have today and if we want to give a chance to the wildlife that were extirpated from Vermont years ago.”
Groups are working to push similar legislation this session. But a third of the Legislature is new, and environmental groups worry legislation will face roadblocks because fledgling lawmakers need to catch up on yearslong issues.
“I think it's very important that everyone takes the time to really understand these issues because they're complex and interconnected,” Mears said. "At the same time, we are looking at the housing shortage; we're looking at the challenges of workforce development. Are (legislators) making sure we have enough people to fill the jobs in the state that are necessary in the natural resources and environmental fields?”
Advocates agree that meeting the needs of Vermont’s forests are crucial to meeting the state’s goals in combating climate change. Those goals are spelled out in the state’s climate action plan adopted in 2021, which looks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through measures that include forest management.
“All the different kinds of ecosystems play such an important role in storing and holding carbon,” Mears said. “They also serve as a source of resilience, a strategy for us for adapting to and responding to the impact of climate. Also, a vital importance to addressing the loss of wildlife and birds that we've been seeing over the past several decades.”
At this point, forest advocates are bullish on their chances of changing Act 250 this session and overcoming vetoes from Scott.
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