Agriculture law seeks to ensure Vermonters ‘right to forestry’

Logging in Vermont. Creative Commons
A bill establishing a “right to forestry” in Vermont would help hard-up foresters expand their operations and keep more of the state’s forests eligible for protection under the current use program, supporters say.
The bill already won a unanimous vote in the Senate and on Tuesday received unanimous support from the House Committee on Agriculture.
Titled S.101, the bill establishes a “rebuttable presumption” that logging is not a nuisance, meaning that a logging or forestry operation can only be found to be a nuisance if it is negligent or violate state or federal law.
The House Agriculture Committee stripped the bill of an amendment that proponents say diluted its effect, which Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, tacked onto the bill on its way out of the Senate.
That amendment would withhold the presumption that logging isn’t a nuisance when a court finds that a forestry practice “has a substantial adverse effect on health, safety or welfare, or has a noxious and significant interference with the use and enjoyment of the property that [a] complaining party owns or controls.”
The bill’s author, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, said he feels optimistic that, even without Sirotkin’s amendment, the bill will survive another appearance before the Senate.
It’s a needed bill, especially in his district, Rodgers said. For years loggers and foresters working in that part of the state have felt the market dwindle for low-grade wood they haul out of the state’s forests.
Although he knows of no nuisance lawsuits filed recently against loggers or foresters, Rodgers said the threat that one might arrive anytime serves as a deterrent for logging certain areas.
“We hear from people working in the forest industry that show up on a job and somebody in the neighborhood comes over and starts giving them a hard time about how he can’t do that. And even though there’s never a lawsuit filed, oftentime the loggers will just pick up and move to their next job because they don’t want to deal with the hassle,” Rodgers said.
Many of Vermont’s loggers and foresters are struggling to stay in business without a ready buyer for their low-grade wood, and this is one of several measures intended to assist them, said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
These remedies have been years in the making, Snyder said, and so far they’ve enjoyed broad support. Policymakers are also working to ease regulations on timber processors, drive down workers’ compensation costs for loggers, and expand a tax exemption on logging equipment, he said.
The right to forestry bill has so far faced little resistance in the Legislature, Snyder said. In fact, Snyder said he attended every legislative committee hearing on the bill this year, and not a single person testified against it.
It’s an important bill not only because it might help keep loggers working, but because it might also help keep the state forested, Snyder said.
Vermont has two million acres of forest land enrolled in the state’s “current use” program, which offers dramatic tax benefits for landowners who manage their tracts according to certain specifications. To be eligible for the program, landowners need to log some portion of the timber on their land.
Making it easier for loggers to work on that land makes it more likely that the state can retain the forests for which it is famed, Snyder said. “We depend on this forest landscape, and current use is one way we keep it going.”
The state’s forests can be preserved in part through conservation-minded acquisitions and easements, Snyder said, but an even more effective strategy involves putting them to use and making them valuable for landowners to retain.
This bill arises from that conviction, he said.
“We’re just trying to be really rational about saying, ‘Hey, how can we make sure that we continue to enjoy the benefits of this marvelous forested landscape, support the private landowners who own that land, and again, the people who work in and on that land — and do it in a responsible and modern way?” Snyder said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Agriculture law seeks to ensure Vermonters ‘right to forestry’.