Conservation Currents

Protecting our Working Landscape

August 2010

by Shelly Stiles

I had an epiphany recently: Vermont has been implicitly encouraging the "buy local" movement since at least 1980, when legislation establishing the Use Value Appraisal Program, also known as Current Use or UVA program, took effect. UVA was one of several topics covered recently in a workshop for private forest landowners. The workshop was sponsored by the Bennington County Sustainable Forest Consortium (BCSFC), of which my organization is a member.

UVA was created to slow development in the state, to help keep farmlands and forests productive (maybe even increasingly productive), and to more equitably tax landowners. Thirty years later, nearly one-third of the land base in Vermont, about 2 million acres, is enrolled in UVA. That’s a lot of land devoted to growing food and wood products, right here at home.

UVA promotes homegrown food and wood products by taxing farmland and forest at their current use, rather than as potentially developable land. The result is a significant tax savings to the landowner. In return, the program requires participants to practice farming and forestry according to reasonable standards. When those standards aren’t met, the landowner is penalized.

Practices on the land can vary greatly from landowner to landowner (as long as certain basic requirements are met), depending on what the owner’s objectives are. At the workshop, attendees were asked "what is most important to you about your forest land?" For one family, wildlife habitat was of primary importance. For another, growing high-quality wood products was the overarching goal. Both objectives are equally acceptable candidates for treatment by UVA.

Once an owner’s objectives are clear, the "how," and "when" of meeting them is laid out in a forest management plan, which becomes the basis for the agreement between the state and the landowner. It describes the forest as it is today, and lays out a chronological to-do list achieving landowner objectives. The plan must extend at least ten years into the future, but its vision may reach as far forward as the next generation, or the one after that. Forest management plans, like forestry itself, are all about the long-term.

When the Legislature created the UVA program, it too was thinking about the long-term. Their wisdom has yielded enormous benefits for the people of Vermont.

Our mountains and side hills grow sugar maple and red spruce, and provide us with maple syrup, firewood, fine furniture, and Bicknell’s thrushes. Our valleys grow milk, berries, pumpkins and Red Russian kale. Tourists from all over the world come to hike in our woods, camp near our ponds, tour our artisanal cheese houses, or experience fall foliage season.

In the last fiscal year, Vermont spent almost $50 million to compensate municipalities for tax revenues that would have otherwise been lost because of the reduced assessed values UVA enrollment provides. Understandably, in the context of today’s economy, such an expenditure caused concern in the legislature last session and created much discussion about it. But UVA is critical to Vermont’s economic and ecological future.

These data aren’t entirely attributable to the UVA program, but consider: In 2007, the value of the forest products harvested in Vermont was $1.5 billion. In 2007, the market value of agricultural products sold was $674 million. In 2010, tourism supported nearly 60,000 jobs, and generated $207 million in tax and fee revenues in Vermont. And 15,000 UVA enrollees were treated equitably at tax time.

Looks to me like the Use Value program is working as it was designed to work, and is returning excellent value for the citizens of Vermont.

Shelly Stiles is the district manager of the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwestern Vermont. The mission of the BCSFC is to promote responsible use and exemplary stewardship of the forests of Bennington County, and in so doing, sustain the healthy ecosystems and livelihoods they support.) Website at www.bccdvt.org.

This column appeared in the Bennington Banner in August 2010, as one of the BCCD's Conservation Currents pieces, a bi-weekly feature written by BCCD board and staff members since August 2006.