Environmentalists Fume After Scott Vetoes Climate-Related Bill | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Environmentalists Fume After Scott Vetoes Climate-Related Bill


Published June 3, 2022 at 4:10 p.m.

A forest near Camel's Hump - COURTESY OF OLIVIA WOLF
  • Courtesy of Olivia Wolf
  • A forest near Camel's Hump
Two bills meant to protect Vermont forests met very different fates recently, with Gov. Phil Scott signing one into law and rejecting another with a veto.

Last week, Scott approved H.697, which will effectively lower taxes for the owners of some forestland that is left untouched. But on Thursday, the governor rejected H.606, which would have required the state to have a plan to conserve 30 percent of its land and waters by 2030, in line with President Joe Biden’s initiative to mitigate climate change and declines in biodiversity. The bill would have gone even further and required 50 percent of the state’s land to be conserved by 2050.

The different outcomes of the two bills deepened concern among lawmakers and environmental groups that Scott is not committed to fighting climate change or meeting the state’s aggressive emission reduction goals.

“I would like to know — and Vermonters would like to know: What, if anything, is this governor going to do to address climate change?” Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury) said in a statement after Scott’s veto of H.606.

Sheldon, who championed the bill as chair of the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee, said she was “deeply disappointed” by Scott’s veto.

She noted that it was the second major recommendation of the state's Climate Action Plan that Scott has vetoed. The other was a bill, the Clean Heat Standard, that took aim at reducing carbon emissions from buildings, which account for 34 percent of the state’s emissions.
In his veto message for H.606, Scott said the conservation goals in the bill were “unnecessarily tied to – and unreasonably limited to – permanent protection” and would “diminish the existing and successful conservation tools we have.”

Effective land conservation requires multiple strategies to meet an array of unique ownership situations, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. She found the bill too restrictive and expensive in that it required all conserved land to be permanently conserved.

The measure would have required Moore's department to draw up the plan to meet those 30 percent by 2030 goals, but lawmakers provided no funding to accomplish the intense planning work that would be needed to succeed, Moore said.

“It wound up feeling like we were being asked to write a plan that we don’t actually believe would function, all with no money,” she told Seven Days.

Environmental groups blasted the veto. Jamey Fidel, forest program and wildlife director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, noted that the decision leaves the state without a plan to address the thousands of forest acres lost to development in Vermont each year.

“At some point we need the Governor to show some leadership on this issue. Unfortunately, today is not that day,” Fidel wrote in a statement.

Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees, said the move forces his organization and its partners to “up the ante and play hardball” to protect forests in the state. He declined to elaborate, but the group has advocated for banning logging on public lands such as the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest.

The Scott administration’s objection to permanent conservation suggests officials don’t fully understand how ecosystems function, Porter said. Anything less than permanent protection would allow landowners or their heirs to change their minds about land management in the future, he said

“If you aren’t investing in permanent conservation, you’ll be fighting the same battles year after year after year, in some cases over the same piece of ground,” Porter said.

Moore said permanent conservation plays an important role, especially in sensitive habitats, but is clearly not the only one. Tax incentives that encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests is one cost-effective way to accomplish the same goal.

That’s why the governor collaborated with lawmakers on the other bill, H.697, aimed at helping conserve forestland through tax breaks, Moore said.

Under the state’s "use value appraisal program," properties actively used for forestry and agriculture are taxed at lower rates than for commercial or residential uses. Launched in 1980, the program has grown to 16,000 parcels covering 2 million acres of privately held forests. The tax breaks added up to $67 million in foregone revenue in 2021.

To qualify, property owners must actively harvest trees from their properties.
Some environmentalists argue that incentivizes logging when letting forests grow old is an imperative climate solution.

The bill creates a new category of “reserved forestland” that would qualify for the lower tax rates if the owner’s goal is “attaining old forest values and functions.” Only about 1 percent of the state’s forests are considered “old growth,” according to the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Beginning in July 1, 2023, the new current use category will apply to properties that have “significant and sensitive conditions,” such as wetlands or hillsides that make logging impractical.

Approximately 159,000 additional acres would qualify for the new category. If 25 percent of that land were enrolled after 10 years, the program would cost the state about $1.4 million in lower property taxes.

Some environmental groups have praised the move as a positive step toward conserving more forestland as “wild” instead of “working.” But Porter has called the expansion a “baby step”  that will do little to offset the current rate of forest loss. He also worried that it's far from the scale of conservation needed to address the climate crisis.