Loggers, foresters decry bill protecting habitat
MONTPELIER >> Lawmakers hope Tuesday to advance a bill through committee that would offer substantial protections to habitat for threatened and endangered species.
Advocates say the bill, H.552, will enhance the survival of wild species in Vermont.
Loggers worry that the legislation could prevent them from cutting trees.
"When you talk about endangered species, well, we're the endangered species," said Kenneth Davis, a logger who owns Hardwick-based Davis Contracting Service, in testimony before the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
The industry's been on the wane for some time now, Davis said, and loggers are wary they might be blocked from logging certain lands if additional restrictions are passed.
A representative for forest products giant Weyerhauser wants lawmakers to kill the bill.
"Our solution would be, there's a very well-established federal program, and rely on that," Mark Doty, Weyerhauser public affairs manager, told senators.
Weyerhauser supports species protections, Doty said, but the bill grants sweeping powers to the Agency of Natural Resources, he said. The agency now advocates for a narrow scope of protections; under the legislation, vast swaths of land could be placed under new restrictions.
As an example, Doty told senators of the lynx, an endangered species whose habitat spans 23,000 acres. In the state of Maine, protections for the lynx cover about 6 million acres, he said.
The federal Endangered Species Act already protects species like the lynx, which is endangered throughout the country. The bill currently before the Senate Natural Resources committee would apply similar habitat protections for species threatened specifically within Vermont's borders.
Advocates have in the past used the Common Tern as an example of such a species. Though the bird is not rare in much of the country, the tern population has declined in Vermont, and since 1988 conservationists have sought to recover its numbers on Lake Champlain.
This approach, Doty said, duplicates existing federal protections and threatens the logging industry within Vermont.
Jim Shallow, Conservation and Policy Director for Audobon Vermont, said the lynx isn't a good example of a species whose protections might hurt loggers, said. What he called "active forest management" — a term whose rubric includes logging — actually benefits the lynx, Shallow said. Forestry is still permitted and occurs on protected lands in Maine, he said.
Doty, Davis and Shallow all said good forestry practices benefit many species.
That's the reason loggers, foresters and silviculturists don't need to fear the legislation, according to Louis Porter, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The bill doesn't bar logging and other human activities from large areas of the landscape.
Unlike the federal endangered species law, which set aside millions of acres of land to protect the spotted owl, for instance, Vermont's threatened and endangered species law is much more tailored, Porter said.
Bats might receive limited protections to specific hibernacula, or specific nesting beaches might be cordoned off for spiny softshell turtles, Porter said. An eagle's nesting tree might have a protective area around it during the nesting period, he said.
"These are areas where the fate of the species is directly and unquestionably tied to those specific and identifiable areas," he said.
State statutes protect the logging industry, Porter said. The new legislation requires his agency to go through a formal, public rule-making process each time it is invoked.
"We cannot have undue interference with forestry and agricultural practices," Porter said. "That's a longstanding provision in state threatened and endangered species law."
For all these reasons, he said, the bill represents "a fairly modest extension or improvement of that law."
Current law protects only the species itself, and not habitat, and the former can't survive without the latter, said Vermont Natural Resources Council forest and wildlife program director Jamey Fidel said.
"If you want to recover threatened and endangered species, it's almost impossible to not look at conserving critical habitat at the same time," Fidel said. "That's what they need to survive, is protection of their habitat."
Fidel said the bill is the result of concessions to industry. It alloww, for instance, a general exemption from the bill's effects for certain ongoing activities — even for those that adversely impact otherwise protected habitat.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee will discuss the bill on Monday and vote on it then or the next day, according to Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, the committee chair.
The bill should be on its way to the Senate floor soon, Bray said, and not only because time left in the legislative session is running out.
"Given how long this bill has been under development and how much compromise brought us to this place, I'm not inclined to make any amendments at this point," he said.
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