2.18.2022 – The Housekeeping Bill and Forest Future Strategic Roadmap (H.566)
It was a productive week for the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee in that we got our Housekeeping Bill through second reading on the Floor of the House; third reading and, hopefully, passage will happen on Tuesday. What pray tell is a Housekeeping Bill? It is comprised of technical changes to the statutes that dictate what the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) does and how they do it. This year, it included statutory changes to bring state law into conformance with federal law in regard to hemp and produce safety. Additionally, there were some changes made as to how the AAFM does business in order to streamline their processes.
We also passed out of committee the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap, which asks the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation (FPR) to contract with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) to conduct a process similar to what happened more than a decade ago in agriculture. The work done back then, the Farm to Plate Initiative, created a roadmap for the agricultural sector that has been invaluable in identifying where our strengths lie, where the bottlenecks and pinch points are, and where investments, large and small, should be made in our agricultural system. Many of these investments have been made by the Working Lands Enterprise Board/Fund.
The same is anticipated to happen for our forest products industry if the bill passes, enabling this work to be done. We know that there have been studies done in the past that are somewhat dated at this point, but that they will help inform the work that will be done by the VSJF. One of the challenges is that there aren’t as many trade associations as there are in the agricultural sector so gathering folks together will be a little more of a challenge. It is imperative that people in all sectors of the forest products industry participate in this process in order for it to be successful.
The process that we, as a committee, went through is a good lesson in how legislation should be made with input and transparency. At the outset, the bill was drafted based on work done by the Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWG) that we refer to as “Redwing.” The group meets regularly at the State House or on Zoom at eight o’clock in the morning. The question was asked, “How can we make our rural economies more vibrant and successful?” In this case the focus was on the wood products industry, which has suffered in recent years due to the loss of low-grade mills in Maine, low timber prices in general, and other market forces.
What was planned for last summer and fall was an extensive, statewide tour of timber operations, sawmills, biomass plants, wood pellet plants, and many other aspects of the forest products sector. Other presentations were made via Zoom and we learned about mass timber for larger structures and the work that has been done in Maine. I went on the field trip to a timber site up in the hills of Wardsboro and then down to Cersosimo Lumber in Brattleboro. These field trips were held all over the state so that committee members of all parties could gain first-hand knowledge about what is actually happening in the forest products sector.
It was first thought that we should have one big omnibus bill, but it was decided that it would be broken in two and have one bill comprised of immediate steps that could be taken to improve the situation for the forest products industry (H.581) and the one that was assigned to our committee that is more aspirational for the future (H.566). Both bills were signed onto by Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and Independents.
When H.566 came to the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, we took testimony from the Commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, Michael Snyder; the Executive Director of the VSJF, Ellen Kahler; many people involved in the forest products sector; and Ed Larson, lobbyist for the Vermont Forest Products Association.
Not all testimony was positive. Some witnesses, including a sawmill owner felt that studies and planning had been done in the past and what they needed was immediate action. We were able to explain that the immediate action steps were in H.581, which is in the House Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife Committee. Ellen Kahler felt that we should rename the bill and call it a Strategic Roadmap, rather than a program because it was more descriptive of what the bill was meant to be. Commissioner Snyder wanted to be clearer about the relationship between FPR and VSJF. Ed Larson had many criticisms of the bill in his role as a lobbyist. By the same token, there were many folks who testified that they liked the idea and were fully supportive.
We took the criticism to heart and asked the Commissioner, Ellen Kahler, and Ed Larson to come together and work out their differences and determine what would give them more comfort. The resulting draft renamed the bill to be the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap and it resolved the differences amongst the parties so that ultimately everyone came together in full support, and we were able to vote the bill out of committee unanimously.
The next step is for the bill to go to the Appropriations Committee because there is an appropriation of $250,000 included. I had a conversation with Chair Rep. Mary Hooper several weeks ago so that she was aware of the possibility that the bill would come to her committee. Appropriations doesn’t like surprises!
It is our hope that H.566 will make it through the process and we will be able to take another step toward a prosperous future for the wood products industry.