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A Future For Our Forests

(...AND our Forest Economy)

Greetings friends, and welcome to the Winter 2022 edition of CONNECTIONS, the quarterly newsletter from Cold Hollow to Canada. We hope this finds you and yours happy and healthy. The calendar still says winter, but spring seems to be nipping at its heals in recent days, with temps tipping into the 50s, the morning sun showing up a little earlier each day, and maple taps set for the coming sugar season. Winter in Vermont usually means snowshoes, ski lifts, bob houses, and snow mobiles, but it also means legislation and public policy, as activity heats up under the golden dome (and/or the zoom screens working remotely) and our elected leaders debate matters which will touch on all aspects of our lives and livelihoods. With cross over fast approaching (the deadline for bills to make it from one chamber to the other for passage this session), I’d like to highlight one piece of legislation we’re keeping our eye on: H.566, the Forest Futures bill.

H. 566 seeks to establish the Vermont Forest Futures Program to strengthen, promote, and protect the forest products industry in Vermont. To implement the program, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund Program (in collaboration with the Dept of Forest, Parks and Recreation, and partners across the industry) would be required to develop the Vermont Forest Future Action Plan. Our industry is facing monumental challenges, from depressed markets and the impacts of globalization on pricing, to climate change and the operational considerations required to respond to the new normal we face, to workforce and infrastructure needs to ensure that the communities who depend on this sector remain vibrant. The Forest Futures Program would provide an opportunity to catalyze transformational change and ensure that we provide this foundational element of Vermont’s communities and economies, as well as our identify here.

To be clear, we don’t want this to just be another study that sits on the shelf, and I understand the concern around that. Our industry hasn’t felt heard for a long time, and many of us have seen some form of this movie before. Frankly, I think it’s left many of us a little jaded—how will this be different? That’s true, we have seen this before in one iteration or another. We can point to the Forest Sector Analysis that the Working Land Enterprise Board commissioned in 2016 as an example. However, the proposal in H.566 outlines a process where the private sector is in the lead (a recommendation taken right from that 2016 study), with the Jobs Fund providing facilitation, and state government as a partner. We’ve seen a similar process play out in the development of Vermont’s incredibly successful Farm to Plate plan (which was renewed again in 2021). This process has the potential to create agency and catalyze buy-in in the plan in a way where past efforts haven’t, and not just outline what we need, but concrete public policy moves to get us there. This is an opportunity to create a plan which is truly ours. A collaborative roadmap to achieve our ideas. Now there’s a key thing here, and that’s that if we do this the industry needs to step up and respond to the call, and I think if set the table right the industry will. 

The other important thing here with H.566 is that the Legislature is asking for the plan. Those that work in this sector, from landowners to loggers, to mill owners and secondary manufacturers, get to tell the State where we need to invest, not the other way around. This is different from a plan coming from the outside. The legislature is a partner is a new way here. Not only does this aspect of the proposal have the ability to strengthen the process, but it elevates the industry in the eyes of the public, and I can’t emphasis how important that is. How many times have we sat around a table or stood around a skidder and talked about how the general public doesn’t get us? They love cows and pastural vistas, perfectly plump produce and products like organic kimchi, but when it comes to our end of the working lands economy, they most often look with confusion or apprehension. This a chance to lift up and celebrate the industry during a time when we need that more than ever.

Also important to remember is that the Forest Futures Plan is one of 6 recommendations that came out of the Rural Economic Working Group summer tour. Legislators traveled to every corner of the state to meet with Vermonters who make their livelihood in or from the forest, including here in the CHC region where we hosted the group for a day of discussion on low-impact logging, maple, forest carbon, climate change adaptation, and the importance of local sawmills. This plan runs in tandem with those recommendations around tweaks to ACT 250, municipal heat switching assistance, and changes truck weight allowances. These are all critically important steps, but the Forest Futures Plan provides an opportunity to address transformational change.

Lastly, as we consider the Forest Futures Plan we need to consider the importance of the moment. I had the opportunity to serve on the Agricultural and Ecosystem subcommittee of the Vermont Climate Council, which introduced the development of such a plan into the Climate Action Plan. We’re turning to our forests in a new way. This plan provides an opportunity to look at our sector through the lens of climate adaptation and resilience and through economic opportunity. I think about the potential for product substitution (things like MASS timber and moving away from steel, for cellulose insulation instead of fiber glass) and for thermal heat applications which move us away from fossil fuels. The plan provides a cross-cutting opportunity to really cement the connections that need cementing and lift up our work as part of the natural climate solutions that we need.

Our forests and our forest economy are foundational to our future in Vermont, and we have an opportunity to add our voice as we collectively chart a road map to ensure their integrity, resilience, and vibrance. Use that voice now to let your legislators know that H.566 is the opportunity we need by contacting your local leaders. You can find the contact info for all state representatives and senators by town here, so take a minute this week to reach out to let them know how important our forest future is for Vermont.