As we see the end of the 2018 Legislative Session approaching rapidly, legislators are very conscious of the remaining time and the desire to get our work done. This is the second year of the biennium and, as such, any legislation that does not make it through the process will die.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee voted out S.101, the “Right to Practice Forestry” bill. The goal is to give the forest products sector the same level of protection as agriculture, which is covered by the Right to Farm Act. We should be very clear that S.101 does not authorize anything that is prohibited, it does not prohibit anything that is already authorized, it does not exempt anything from Act 250, and it does not exempt anything from local land use or any other land use law. It provides a rebuttable presumption that a forestry project is legal so long as the logger is in compliance with the Acceptable Management Practices for Maintaining Water Quality on Logging Jobs in Vermont as adopted by the Commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and any other applicable law.
It is hoped that this legislation will give loggers a level of confidence so that they can practice their profession without fear of frivolous objection. During testimony, we heard an account of a logger arriving at the site of a timber cut only to have a neighbor come out of their house threatening a lawsuit. Rather than deal with the situation, and the possible delay of having to go to court, the logger loaded up his equipment and left to go to the next job.
There are folks who just don’t like seeing trees cut, but this is problematic because the landowner needing the work done may be relying on that logger in order to meet the requirements of their forest management plan, which is required by the Use Value Appraisal, or Current Use, Program. If the landowner does not meet the requirements of their forest management plan they may be removed from the program.
The Current Use Program allows landowners to enroll their forested or agricultural land in order to receive an adjustment on their property taxes. Agricultural and forested parcels of 25 acres or more may be enrolled but there are requirements to participate. To be clear, if there is a house on the property, two acres need to be excluded so one actually needs a minimum of 27 acres to enroll. There is an additional agricultural program for parcels less than 25 acres that requires that the enrollee to make a gross income of at least $2,000 from what is produced on the land. The forestry program requires that a forest management plan be done, which can cost money but with the adjustment to property taxes, that cost is paid for relatively quickly. Additionally, the forest management plan may require timber cuts so the landowner will receive a payment for that.
The bill will now go back to the Senate to see if they agree with the changes we made. Because this legislation was requested by the Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation we assume that the governor will sign the bill.
On Thursday, a joint hearing convened with the House Agriculture and Forestry; House Natural, Fish, and Wildlife; Senate Agriculture; and Senate Natural Resources Committees. The subject was Lake Carmi and the focus was on the agricultural side of it. I highly recommend that anyone interested in this subject go the Facebook page for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, click on Videos, and go to “Vermont farmers testify to joint committee on new information.” The video is almost two hours long but is well worth viewing. It starts with a presentation by Dr. Heather Darby, a soil agronomist who works at UVM Extension and then includes testimony from all of the farmers in the Lake Carmi watershed. Their testimony is extremely powerful.
Some of the press that has been published seems to pin the blame for the horrific conditions at Lake Carmi last summer/fall solely on the farmers. The farmers have also been subjected to unknown people not only trespassing on their land but entering their barns to take pictures. They have come to feel extremely uncomfortable as a result of these intrusions – they feel they are under attack. As a farmer myself, I would consider anyone entering my barn without permission and uninvited as hostile. I am glad to invite people into the barn to see our sheep and goats but imagine how you would feel if someone entered your home or place of business uninvited and took pictures!
Dr. Darby became concerned with the situation and decided to spend three weeks working with the farmers to determine what the science really indicates. Because Heather has what she refers to as “social capital” with the farmers, they were willing to trust her to view their Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) to determine if they were solely the culprits. In fact, the results reveal that while there are definitely fields that have high phosphorus (P) levels, more than 80% have optimal or below optimal levels of P.
What was also revealed is that, in most cases, the farmers are going above and beyond in terms of what they are doing to improve soil health and reduce nutrient run-off. This includes employing regenerative practices such as cover-cropping, no- or low-tillage, manure injection, and grassed waterways. Other farmers have invested in anaerobic digesters, manure separation, the capture of roof water, and the plantation of shrubs and trees to reduce run-off and erosion.
So the question remains, what is causing the problem? Clearly, there is a legacy P problem. In recent weeks I have written about the conditions after World War II and the encouragement by the federal government for farmers to use P – and the attitude that if a little is good, then more is better. There are now more than 340 camps around the lake and they are being used more regularly than in the past. Lake Carmi is at the bottom of what is essentially a bowl and there is a road that can add to the problem. On top of all this, last spring/summer/fall’s weather created a perfect storm and optimal conditions for a cyanobacteria algae bloom. In other words, there are a lot of factors contributing to the problem.
I would like to see all of the stakeholders come together to solve this problem as quickly as possible, keeping in mind that cleanup of the lake will take decades to achieve. The problem is that there is a lack of trust on the parts of most parties in one respect or another. There needs to be a meeting of the minds to determine common goals and the values/principles we all share so that we can take positive steps toward that goal we all desire.