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Groups critical of logging in national forests

AS LOGGING CONTINUES across parts of the Green Mountain National Forest (as seen here in Rochester), activists are gearing up to fight on a new front, the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project. Much of the more-than-32,000 acres of publicly owned land is designated as “available” for timber harvesting. Photo by Mark Nelson

VERMONT — A new coalition of national and regional environmental and climate policy groups launched an initiative last month taking aim at logging on federal lands, including the Green Mountain National Forest.

The Climate Forest campaign, which is supported by 70 organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, is calling on the Biden administration to end logging of mature and old-growth forests on federal public lands, pointing out that such forests “store vast amounts of carbon and continue absorbing it as they age,” making them “critical in the fight against climate change,” according to a Feb. 15 media release.

“It’s time to adopt a new policy: Let our forests grow,” said Zack Porter, director of Montpelier-based Standing Trees, which has been sounding the alarm about logging in Vermont and New Hampshire’s national forests for the past two years. “The last thing we should be doing is cutting down mature forests that remove climate-harming pollution, safeguard wildlife, reduce the threat of flooding and drought, and provide clean water for our communities.”

Of particular concern to Standing Trees and other regional advocates of “letting forests be forests” is the 72,000-acre “Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project,” which spans nine towns in Addison, Rutland and Windsor counties and includes more than 32,000 acres of National Forest lands in Chittenden, Goshen, Killington, Mendon, Pittsfield and Stockbridge.

Green Mountain National Forest officials have indicated that up to 11,000 acres in the area — 85% of which contains trees that are more than 80 years old — could be opened up to commercial timber harvesting in the coming years, as part of the federal logging program.

These “mature” but not yet “old” forests are “still recovering from logging and burning that leveled more than 99% of the region’s original forests,” according to the Climate Forest campaign media release. And though they’re still a long way from returning to full health, they capture more carbon that the private forests being logged for profit around the region.

In fact, the Climate Forest campaign says, “Today, logging is the leading cause of tree death in New England and accounts for 86% of all carbon that is lost from New England forests, annually.”

Logging on federal lands not only constitutes one of the most environmentally harmful subsidies in the United States, it comes at a great cost to taxpayers, according to a 2019 report issued by the Center for Sustainable Economy.

The report estimated that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) authorizes the logging equivalent of 650,000 full log truckloads per year nationwide.

“And because the Forest Service sells its timber far below cost, it results in significant taxpayer losses.”

The report cited research by the John Muir Project estimating that the USFS logging program costs U.S. taxpayers roughly $1.7 billion a year, in 2018 dollars.

But eliminating logging of mature and old forests on federal lands isn’t about eliminating the timber industry, Porter said.

“About 90% of wood products come from private lands,” he told the Independent. “We don’t have to choose between wood products and wildlands. We just need to be smarter about how we zone. We need to let these mature forests get older and do what we need the most right now.”

FOREST MANAGEMENT

In order for that to happen, there needs to be a change in the current forest “management” mindset, Porter said.

“For generations in New England we have failed to question this idea that we have to cut trees to save the forest,” he said. “That’s a myth, not fact. It’s born from this 400-year-old Puritan idea that land has no value unless it’s ‘put to use.’”

But this is starting to change as forest management practices come under increased scrutiny.

Porter pointed to a 2015 report, “Enhancing Flood Resiliency of Vermont State Lands,” prepared for the state Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation by two Bristol residents, Kristen Underwood of South Mountain Research & Consulting, and David Brynn, executive director of Vermont Family Forests.

The report, prompted by record flooding on Lake Champlain in the spring of 2011, and the widespread damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene later that year, found that while many of Vermont’s state lands are in “forest cover,” Irene caused significant damage to their man-made infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, because the landscapes’ natural vulnerabilities to “overland flow and soil erosion has been exacerbated by a legacy of land use impacts dating as far back as the 1700s.”

Porter noted the following passage of the report in particular:

“There may be a tendency to assume that lands in forest cover are resilient to the effects of flooding simply by virtue of their forested status. However, forest cover does not necessarily equate to forest health and forest flood resilience. Headwater forests of Vermont include a legacy of human modifications that have left certain land areas with a heightened propensity to generate runoff, accelerate soil erosion, and sediment streams. These legacy impacts affect forest lands across the state, not just state lands.”

And they’re not just brought on by tropical storms.

Brynn recalled the wave of August 2004 storms that dropped several inches of rain in northern Addison County, causing widespread flooding and damage in Bristol and New Haven.

“It was unbelievable,” Brynn told the Independent. “You could hear boulders rolling down the (New Haven) river.”

The storm precipitated an unusual high-elevation event in Bristol, as well.

‘GULLY-WASHERS’

A wall of water came cascading down Hogback Mountain, depositing tons of earth into the backyards of Bristol’s Mountain Street residents and crashing into Bristol Elementary School.

The following day, eager to find out where all that water had come from, Brynn started walking up Hogback Mountain, he recalled. What he found was so fascinating that he walked all the way to top and had to make his way down in the darkness.

“It was roads and erosion all the way up,” he said. “We had concentrated the (water) flow from the Hogback Mountain down onto the door of the elementary school.”

All of the water would eventually have reached the bottom of the mountain anyway, he acknowledged, but an uninterrupted landscape would have been able to absorb more of it, and slow it down.

It was but one Addison County example of what can happen during particularly intense gully-washers, which are expected to increase in intensity and frequency in Vermont as a result of climate change.

As it stands now, forest management practices are not poised to address future climate stresses.

“If we want forests to do what we want them to do, we need to think less about ‘forest management’ and more about ‘ecosystem protection,’” Brynn said.

But he’s not sure about eliminating logging entirely from federally owned lands.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t cut some timber,” Brynn said. “But I think we need to let the forest teach us how to practice exemplary forestry. The trees are the gurus.”

Which is why Brynn and his colleagues at Vermont Family Forests are advocating for the addition of a new category — Reserve Wildlands Forest Land Use — to Vermont’s Use Value Assessment Program, which is the keystone of the state’s conservation strategy.

Currently, wildlands, which “are the very best at combatting a rapidly changing climate and conserving a resilient landscape,” make up less than 3% of Vermont’s landscape, Vermont Family Forests says.

BIODIVERSITY

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, is hoping to change that.

In January Rep. Sheldon introduced bill H.660, the “Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act.”

The goal of H.660 is to conserve 30% of Vermont’s total land area — including state, federal, municipal and private land — by 2030, and 50% by 2050.

The mix of biodiversity reserves, ecological conservation areas and sustainable resource management areas would be determined by the goals within Vermont Conservation design, the bill says, including the goal of maintaining or restoring old forests across at least 9% of Vermont forestland.

“We all know how important our open spaces are,” Sheldon told the Independent. “This is: Let’s be more intentional about how we spend our conservation dollars, so that we’ll be leaving the Vermont we have now for future generations.”

The full text of H.660 can be found online at tinyurl.com/VTh606.

For more information about Vermont Family Forests, visit familyforests.org. For more information about the Climate Forest campaign, visit climate-forests.org.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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