Imagine a landowner and a county forester walking in the woods. They’re standing in the middle of a grove of mixed hardwoods. Interspersed within the numerous brown and gray trunks are softer hues of birch trees. The county forester offers the landowner tips to manage her 300-acre woodlot.
For years, she has managed her land in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. But when the plywood mill in Rutland closed in 2014, the price paid for one of the most common trees in her forest dropped 40% almost overnight. To make ends meet, she is considering carving off a handful of 5-acre plots from her 300 contiguous acres of hardwood forest and selling them to people interested in building homes or businesses.
As forestland owners subdivide woodlots into smaller pieces and sell these pieces to multiple owners, this creates a big problem with an even bigger name: forest fragmentation and parcelization. Disjointed land ownership makes the long-term management of forest resources more challenging and complex. Fragmented ownership can exacerbate the most urgent issue of our time, climate change.
If we lose these forests, we lose important arrows in our climate-change quiver — habitat connectivity, carbon sequestration and landscape resilience. Parcelization also impacts forest-based recreational opportunities such as skiing, hunting and biking. For example, an increased number of parcels means more permissions needed to support a trail network.
When local markets for timber dissolve, it becomes harder to keep woodlands intact and economically viable. When a place like Rutland Plywood closes, it’s not a victory for the forests. When processors and manufacturers of locally produced wood products struggle, it hurts the recreationalists who often use privately-owned (but publicly accessible) land during a hike or snowmobile trip. When Vermont’s forestland owners can no longer cover their costs of ownership — from property taxes to stewardship — with periodic timber harvests, we experience a ripple effect across the state impacting everyone from loggers to mill workers to mountain bikers.
A weak forest economy translates into weak forests. Vermont is currently losing forests — about 1% during the past decade, which may sound small but translates to nearly 50,000 acres. The economic viability of our working lands plays a key role in protecting the 4.5 million acres of forests covering Vermont’s landscape.
In recent years, Vermont has experienced a dramatic decline in local markets for forest products. This forces forestland owners to transport timber farther and farther to the remaining processors, squeezing profit margins and increasing carbon emissions. Over 100 sawmills and other wood processors have ceased operation in Vermont in the past 50 years, including Rutland Plywood. And as these local markets disappear, the risk to the viability of our working landscape grows.
To put it bluntly, when landowners are unable to receive a reasonable rate of return on their land through the sale of timber, they look for other ways to cover the cost of ownership. I have heard some say, tongue-in-cheek, that they’re trading a perennial crop of forest products for a one-time crop of houses. As a state, we need to “tip the scales” in favor of trees, perennial crops of forest products, and healthy, intact and expansive forest blocks.
For Vermont to truly embody our identity as the Green Mountain State, we must think holistically, not just about protecting forests, but the entire supply chain that allows forestland owners to receive a reasonable rate of return. Working to preserve forest product enterprises that add value and generate revenue essential to stable land ownership is the best practice of today and the future. The next time you see a log truck on the road, think about where it came from, where it’s going and the benefits we all accrue as a result.
Julie Moore is Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state agency with primary responsibility for protecting and sustaining Vermont’s environment, natural resources, wildlife and forests, and for maintaining Vermont’s beloved state parks. She lives in Middlesex.