With Scott’s signing, the Current Use Program will get a new category of “Reserved Forest Land”

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Vermont Forests
Vermont’s current use program, which offers landowners a lower property tax rate for undeveloped land, is expected to see a new category of “reserved forest land.” File photo of Mark Bushnell

Vermont’s current use program, which offers landowners a lower property tax rate for undeveloped land, is expected to see a new category that allows landowners to prioritize conservation.

With few exceptions, the benefits of current use, launched in 1980, have only been available to landowners who grow or harvest trees on their land.

The idea is that in exchange for a lower tax rate, property owners contribute to Vermont’s economy. Current use has been hailed as an effective way to safeguard Vermont’s working forests and rural character.

But recently, a group of environmentalists and lawmakers pointed out that benefits to society also come from cultivating old-growth forests and protecting undisturbed lands, especially as Vermont continues to see the impacts of climate change. .

To that end, Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, introduced a bill, H.697, to include more conserved land currently in use. Governor Phil Scott signed the bill into law on Friday.

“We learned from testimonials that Vermont, of the northeastern states, has the least old growth forest,” Sheldon said. “In our quest to both protect our communities from climate change and to conserve biodiversity, this is one piece of the puzzle to achieve that.”

According to the bill, climate change “is best mitigated and adapted through a diversity of forest management strategies and forest conditions in Vermont.”

“Science has clearly shown that wild forests store and sequester more carbon, on average, than managed forests,” said Jon Leibowitz, executive director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, one of the only groups in the North East that does not does not allow logging. the land he keeps. “Science has also shown very clearly that wild, old-growth and complex forests harbor more biodiversity than young, managed forests.”

With only 3% of Vermont’s forests managed as “wild,” they will eventually age, Leibowitz said, “there’s plenty of room for more wild land” without significantly hampering Vermont’s working forests.

According to the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, less than 1% of Vermont’s forests have achieved old-growth status, but the vast majority of the state’s forests are privately owned – and the majority of private land are listed for current use. .

Forests cover nearly 4.6 million acres of Vermont’s 6 million acres, and 80% of those acres are privately owned. Of all private forests, 60% – about 16,000 parcels totaling about 2 million acres – are registered for current use.

“The biggest gateway to private land, and the legislation that affects more landowners than any other, is current use,” Leibowitz said. “If we’re trying to keep land as wild, you have to engage with private landowners.”

Effective July 1, 2023, the new law will establish a category of “Reserve Forest Land” that will allow landowners who have certain environmentally significant features on their land to enter the program without cultivating or felling it.

On parcels up to 100 acres, 50% must be land considered significant or sensitive, and on parcels of 100 acres or more, these conditions must represent 30% of the land listed.

“The bill is a victory for landowners who want to manage old-growth forests and protect biodiversity,” Sheldon said.

Over the next several years, commissioners from the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and the Department of Revenue will release reports for lawmakers that will outline the mechanics of the program and report on the number of participants.

Some environmentalists hoped the bill would have opened up the category to more landowners – preliminary estimates indicated the category would likely be open to around 30% of landowners initially.

“The adoption of this improvement to the current use program is a positive but modest step forward for Vermont’s forests,” said Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters.

She urged the governor to also sign “the rest of the complementary and essential forest policies passed by the Legislative Assembly this year,” including S.234, a bill that would revise Bill 250, and H.606, which would make a step towards conservation. 30% state land by 2030 and 50% by 2050 in alignment with a national movement.

Leibowitz hailed the bill’s passage as a “huge step in the right direction.”

“I think this is a really significant day for the history of wilderness conservation in Vermont,” Leibowitz said. “It’s a sign that there’s a greater recognition that we need to balance both the conservation of wild lands and the continued conservation of managed forests.”

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