Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Current use program should reflect climate change

When it comes to Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal Program (UVA), often referred to as Current Use, forest landowners face a stark choice: cut and remove trees from their forest and receive an enormous tax benefit from the state, or let trees grow and pay exorbitantly high property taxes on their forestland. We, the members of Wild Forests Vermont, think this is unfair. In light of the urgent ecological crises we face today, this must change.

While not every Vermonter is in a position to own forestland, all Vermonters benefit from keeping our forests as forests. Forests are the beating heart of the Green Mountain State — for good reason.

Forests managed for timber provide us with the raw material that frames our homes and makes our furniture; they also offer locally sourced warmth for many. Those are all good things when done well, and no reasonable person would argue against them.

Forests are also home to countless wild species with whom we share the Vermont landscape. We need to do a better job sharing the landscape with all species who call Vermont home.

Wild forests sequester and store more carbon than forests where roads are built and trees are cut and removed. We need to do a better job keeping carbon in the landscape and out of the atmosphere.

Wild forests provide cleaner water, and the health of Lake Champlain asks us to do a better job on that front.

Wild forests also decrease erosion and provide superior flood resilience. In the face of the next Hurricane Irene, more is asked of us here, too.

Today, only 3% of Vermont is protected in a way that promotes healthy, intact, wild, future old forests. “Vermont Conservation Design” (a 2018 report produced by the Agency of Natural Resources to protect and restore Vermont’s biodiversity) and the recently released “Climate Action Plan” call for managing at least 9% of Vermont’s forests to become old forests. 79% of Vermont’s 4.5 million acres of forest is privately owned, and, according to the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, about 70% of all qualifying privately owned forestland is enrolled in UVA. We simply cannot achieve the goals of Vermont Conservation Design and the Climate Action Plan without modernizing Use Value Appraisal.

We are strong supporters of UVA, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. After 40 years, it needs to reflect the urgency of climate change and the extinction crisis by taking a more holistic view of forest values and by adding a Reserve Wildlands Forest Use option that will allow Vermont to fully embrace ecology, economics and equity. That’s why the new Climate Action Plan also recommends amendments to UVA to create a wildlands category and to allow forever-wild easements into the program.

Wild Forests Vermont supports a Current Use program that places the importance of wild forests at least equal to the importance of harvested forests, and creates tax equity for landowners. All landowners who are currently eligible for forest current-use tax reductions should be allowed to choose to manage their forest under a wildlands category, regardless of geographic location or other criteria.

This is a matter of equity and private property rights, in addition to being a positive choice for the land, biodiversity and atmosphere. Such a change would also align with the original intent behind UVA’s creation. Listed in the law are its original purposes, including: “to achieve more equitable taxation for undeveloped lands,” “to encourage and assist in the preservation and enhancement of Vermont’s scenic natural resources,” and “to enable the citizens of Vermont to plan its orderly growth in the face of increasing development pressures in the interests of the public health, safety and welfare.” Allowing landowners to choose freely between logged and wild forests within current use supports all of those goals.

Why does the state continue to give preferential treatment to landowners who harvest trees on their property versus those who want to focus their exemplary management on carbon storage, wildlife habitat, water quality enhancement, flood resilience and suitable recreation? Additionally, how many landowners enrolled in Current Use are being forced to cut their forests because they can’t afford their property taxes otherwise? Changing this state of affairs is a matter of justice for forest landowners, and for forests themselves.

On Jan. 25, the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife approved a bill that would only allow a minority of forests and landowners into a new reserve category of Current Use. Please share your support for making wild forests available to all landowners eligible for the Current Use Program by sending comments to the House Committee on Ways and Means, your local representative, and to the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, Jill Krowinski.

David Brynn

Lincoln

 

Editor’s note: David Brynn, executive director of Vermont Family Forests, submitted this on behalf of Wild Forests Vermont, a coalition working to increase the amount of wild forests in Vermont on private lands.

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