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Letting forests grow old will soon be allowed under Vermont's Current Use Program

A small footpath leads forward in the frame, through dappled forest. There are deciduous trees with green and yellow leaves and leaves underfoot on the path.
Abagael Giles
VPR File
A new bill recently signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott will make it easier for some landowners to let their forests grow old, by making them eligible for a tax break.

A new law will make it easier for some landowners to let their forests grow old — by making them eligible for a tax break.

It marks a historic change to Vermont’s Current Use Program. For the last 40 years, the program has let landowners who keep their properties out of development pay a lower tax rate. In most cases — until now — that land had to be used for agriculture or timber harvest to qualify.

But in the face of climate change, some say letting forests grow old should also count as part of our working landscape.

VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles about what’s changing. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: So just to start, why is there this interest right now in letting Vermont’s forests grow old? What’s the link there with climate change?

Abagael Giles: Yeah, great question. So as trees grow, they pull climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. Now, the rate at which they pull that carbon out of the air slows as they age, so a lot of scientists say we still need forests that are diverse in age.

But those very old trees? They store a lot of carbon. And older forests support a wealth of animal and plant life. They help with water quality and flood resilience. And lots and lots of scientific research has shown that letting at least some forests grow old is a super important tool for fighting climate change.

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Right now, Grace, in Vermont, only about 1% of our forests are considered old growth. Scientists with the state say we should really aim for closer to 9% to meet our climate commitments and build more climate resilient forests.

That sounds straightforward enough. So how do we get there and why do people think the Current Use Program could help?

In Vermont, like lots of parts of the Northeast, the vast majority of our forests are on private land. So from a practical standpoint, we really need private landowners to get on board with letting their forests grow old if we’re going to meet this goal.

Now, the Current Use Program was developed back in 1978 to help landowners keep their property out of development. Basically people saw that farms and working forests were disappearing as property taxes climbed. And it basically says if you’re a farmer or a logger, you’re using your land in a way that is far less lucrative than if you were to sell it and subdivide it. So you should pay a tax rate that reflects that.

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The program really focuses on keeping working lands intact. That means, with very few exceptions, you have to harvest the timber on at least part of your forest property to enroll. People often call that “being in current use.”

Scientific consensus says we need to act right now to avoid the worst and irreversible impacts of global warming. And some climate advocates and lawmakers said maybe letting our forests grow old should be considered a current use.

What kind of parcels are going to be eligible for this? And how much land are we talking here?

Well to start with, this law doesn’t expand the Current Use Program. This is just a new way you can manage your land within the program.

But first, to qualify, a parcel has to have at least 25 acres of continuous forest. From there, a large portion of the property has to be extra ecologically sensitive. Maybe it has a wetland or is a rare ecosystem. Maybe it’s just too steep to log.

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Early modeling estimates this change to favor old forests will bring about 40,000 acres of new land into current use.

But lots of people who live in Vermont can’t afford to own land. There is also a lot of racial inequity in land ownership here. Is this just expanding on a tax break for people who already are fortunate enough to own land?

That is a longstanding critique of the Current Use Program. And some people would argue that all Vermonters make up the taxes those landowners don’t pay. And almost 25% of the landowners enrolled in the program live outside of Vermont.

Every year the state reimburses towns for the taxes they don’t collect from properties that are in current use. That money comes out of the state education fund, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket.

Right now, about 2 million acres of forest land is in current use in Vermont. The forest economy contributes about 13,000 jobs and $2 billion to the state economy.

Proponents of current use say without this program, we’d be taxing our working landscape out of existence.

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Generally our tax system is built around what people can pay — and if you’re using your land for timber or agriculture, you’re choosing to make less than you would developing it.

Now, this does potentially open the door for some more people who own lots of land but who don’t make their income off their properties to get this lower tax rate.

But early modeling shows it will have a miniscule impact on our state tax revenue. And climate activists say this change is well worth it to keep those forests from potentially becoming subdivisions.

Do other states have current use programs and are they looking at similar solutions?

It’s a pretty common tax program in the Northeast. New Hampshireand Maineboth have versions of current use. And it’s an approach that’s been credited with helping to keep thousands of acres of working forests and farms on the landscape across northern New England.

Lastly – is this alone going to get us all the way to our climate goals? How will we know if this is working?

Advocates say this is a really big win for old forests and for climate. But ultimately, the answer to your question is no. This will not get us to that 9% old forest number alone.

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Some environmentalists would have liked to see any parcel currently eligible for the Current Use Program be allowed to be managed for old forest characteristics. But this is kind of like a pilot program. Lawmakers want to see how it goes, and in four years, the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation will report back on how it all went.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
Grace worked for the station in 2022.
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