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The End of the Session

Greetings friends, and welcome to the Spring 2022 edition of CONNECTIONS, the quarterly newsletter from Cold Hollow to Canada. As we move into June, the spring ephemerals are popping in the understory, the dawn chorus has returned to the canopy, and our amphibian friends are making their way back into the uplands from their romp in the vernal pools that appear each year before vanishing again, leaving a trace only discernable by the well-trained eye. We hope that you’ve been able to get out and enjoy the lovely weather the past couple weeks as our shared landscape once again awakens and blossoms.

Each spring brings a host of changes across our shared landscape. Spring also marks the end of Vermont’s legislative session. Like most years, this session was a bit of a roller coaster ride as numerous bills wound their way through different committees before finally making it to each chambers floor and, for some, to the desk of the Governor. We’d like to take a few minutes here to discuss four pieces of legislation that we’ve been tracking, though we will note that things may have changed by the time you read this as some of these still sit on the Governor’s desk awaiting their determination of fate. Here’s what we have our eye on coming out of the session:

S. 11Signed by the Governor—This is a bill relating to Economic and Workforce Development, with many parts (weighing in at a whooping 119 pages), but our attention is on the Forest Futures Strategic Roadmap included in the bill. Some of you may recall our dive into H.566 in our winter newsletter, which outlined the initial proposal for such a plan. In the end, it found a home in S.11. This is a big win, as the plan is intended to strengthen, promote, and protect the forest products industry in Vermont. 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 will 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 identity here. We’re excited to see this process roll out, led by our friends at the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, and the Vermont Sustainable Job Fund.

H. 697— Signed by the Governor—This bill creates a new subcategory in the Use Value Appraisal Program (also known as Current Use) called “reserve forestland.” The new category would provide new options for landowners to manage unique, qualifying parcels to create old forest conditions. It would build on the Ecologically Sensitive Treatment Areas (ESTAs) category of Current Use by allowing parcels that have ecologically significant features and steep slopes to be enrolled and managed as old forests that do not need to be harvested, in alignment with a new category developed by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR). The bill presented a balanced approach in response to the charge FPR was given around this question of UVA as one tool to reach objectives around old forest targets, and strengthens the Current Use program by modestly increasing the amount of forest land that is eligible in a way that is fiscally conservative, practical, and equitable. In addition, these changes help align the Current Use Program more closely with the goals of the Climate Action Plan to promote old forests that help to mitigate climate change, and help to meet the Agency of Natural Resources' conservation targets for old forest conditions in Vermont. We want to emphasis that active management is not an impediment to meeting our climate objectives or the maintenance of intact forests, and that Old Forests are just one focal area of this work. The Current Use Program in its current form is the reason why our landscape looks the way it does today (2 million acres enrolled is a massive success!), and why we have the host of climate resiliency benefits we do. The program has allowed room for us to even have this conversation today, expanding our lens around how we think about our forests and the role that they play given what we’re seeing on the horizon. The important thing here is that we need a credible conversation about how to meet all of the targets outlined in Vermont Conservation Design, and the changes set for UVA following signature by Governor Scott present a modest opportunity for common ground in advancing just one portion of these Conservation Design targets.

S.234—pending action by the Governor—As passed, the bill includes a lot of changes to Act 250, Vermont’s premier land use and development law. Those provisions of the bill we’ve been tracking sought to amend Act 250 to add Criteria which adds Forest Blocks and Habitat Connectivity to the review process, and to amend the Act to adjust permit conditions for wood product manufacturers, specifically around hours of operation and hours of delivery and agricultural soils mitigation. The changes in Criteria would allow Act 250 to play meaningful role in reviewing the impacts of development on forestland, specifically in strengthening criteria to minimize the fragmentation of large, priority, intact forest blocks and connectivity areas. Provisions around Hours of Operation are important solutions for forest based working lands businesses which achieve the goals articulated in the Act, while recognizing the unique aspects and challenges of land-based businesses which must be considered in a different context than the other forces of commercial or industrial development that impact our rural communities, and the natural resources they depend on. Changes in Agricultural Soils mitigation acknowledge the conservation factor these businesses play in keeping working lands open (and the sawmills should not be considered the same as Walmarts). This bill probably had the hardest time of the ones we were tracking, and after some last-minute shenanigans in the Senate, the wood processing elements were duplicated in another bill (S.226) which passed and is all but assured signature by the Governor. Unfortunately, while S.234 did end up passing intact as well, the Governor has signaled his intention to veto it over the Forest Block criteria, dooming its chances for now. We’ll call this a split—while we’re bummed to see the fragmentation language get dropped (for the sixth year in a row), we’re pleased to see the legislature and governor take modest steps to strengthen the forest economy. (....and don’t worry, we’ll be back fighting for the parallel provisions around resource protection again next year).

H.606—pending action by the Governor—This bill recognizes that in order to address the challenges our state faces from climate change (and the associated biodiversity crises) Vermont’s most effective and efficient contribution to conserving biological diversity and maintaining a landscape resilient to climate change is to conserve an intact and connected landscape. To do this, the provisions of the bill would help implement Vermont’s Climate Action Plan by setting conservation goals for the State of Vermont; specifically, to conserve 30% of Vermont’s land by 2030. The bill would also require the Agency of Natural Resources to develop a plan to meet the conservation goals established in the bill. This plan would include a review of different conservation categories, an inventory of public and private land already conserved, and how current and future conservation practices and programs can be used to achieve conservation goals. The bill also recognizes that a full range of conservation approaches is needed working with willing landowners, including supporting private landowner education, technical assistance programs, and conservation easements and fee acquisitions that promote sustainable forest management and passive management. Unfortunately, the Governor has signaled his intention to veto this bill. This keeps the mantle of moving this important Conservation work forward squarely on the shoulders of organizations like CHC, with our mission of conserving an additional 23,000 acres of core forestland by 2030.

Those are just four of the more than two hundred bills passed by the legislature this session, but they represent a continued focus by our lawmakers of our forests and our forest economy. Given that we’re projected to see record turnover in membership under the golden dome, we can only speculate what’s in store for the next biennium, but be assured that Cold Hollow to Canada will continue to stand with our partners across the state in a collective voice advocating that our forests, and the communities that depend on them, remain vibrant and intact for the generations to come.