Sunday, February 19, 2012

Deep forests in decline

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.


     Intact forestland -- large tracts of woods unbroken by roads and houses -- is decreasing in Vermont as new housing developments spring up, and the Connecticut River watershed is one of the areas most at risk.
     Those are the messages from the U.S. Forest Service, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, all of which are involved in an effort to help Upper Valley towns prepare for future growth while still maintaining forest integrity. The first-ever report studying the subdivision of private woodlands in Vermont showed a 4 percent decrease in large wooded parcels between 2003 and 2009, and the trend is expected to continue as the housing market and the economy begin to rebound, especially along the river corridor, according to conservationists and planners.
     “This is not about stopping growth,” said Jamey Fidel, Forest and Biodiversity Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and one of the authors of the study. “It's about where you put it and how you do it. It is important for towns to be aware of detrimental parcelization, and to be proactive in planning to maintain the integrity of forests while still allowing for economic growth.”
     “Parcelization” -- which occurs when large tracts of woodland are subdivided into parcels -- and “fragmentation,” which occurs when forest is broken up by roads or new development, are buzzwords among those who study and conserve forests. Together, the two are considered the most critical issue facing northern New England forests. Left unaddressed, planners and conservationists warn that they threaten to undermine one of region's most crucial resources.
     “It's one of the greatest identified threats,” Fidel said. “It affects wildlife habitat, recreational access, working forests and water quality.”
     Emma Zavez, a planner for Two Rivers, a Woodstock-based planning commission that includes 30 Vermont towns, said that large swaths of forest don't just protect wildlife, they also benefit human activity, including commercial businesses. The minimum lot size for a productive working forest -- one that can support large-scale sugaring or logging -- is considered to be 50 acres. Such large tracts of woodlands are also a boon for tourism, and they absorb both carbon dioxide and floodwaters.
     Though a 4 percent loss large wooded parcels may not sound like much, the study, published in 2010, has prompted a string of reactions in the Upper Valley and beyond. The Two Rivers commission recently created a forest stewardship committee to explore how zoning policies and town plans can help mitigate forest fragmentation. An initiative called the Linking Lands Alliance is under way to help conserve key wildlife corridors among 14 Upper Valley towns. And the Natural Resources Council just launched a second study to resolve some of the questions that the 2010 report left unanswered.
     The initial report provided a breakdown of subdivision in every town in Vermont, measured by the number of lots that were subdivided into parcels of less than 50 acres. Fairlee, Hartland, Pomfret, Woodstock and others had hardly any loss of large parcels, while Hartford, Royalton, Tunbridge and Vershire saw a loss of 3 percent or more.
     Did the towns with little loss in intact parcels protect forestland through policies and regulations, or did they just not experience much growth? What steps can individuals and towns take to prevent fragmentation? And given that population is stagnant or even declining, why are housing developments on the rise?
     To begin to answer some of these questions, the Natural Resources Council analyzed eight towns spread out across the state, including Norwich, which it called a “new growth town.” The new study will look at 15 more towns, including Hartford and West Windsor.
     Between 2003 and 2009, Norwich saw just a 1 percent loss in large parcels, due in part to the work of town planner Phil Dechert, who has introduced novel subdivision regulations that may be positively influencing wildlife habitat and working forests, according to Brian Shupe, director of the Natural Resources Council.
     “Unlike most communities in the Upper Valley -- and elsewhere in Vermont -- Norwich has a maximum density that is different from a minimum lot size,” Shupe said.
     On Main Street, for example, zoning regulations allow for a density as low as one house per acre, but depending on proximity to the village, the type of road it's on and proximity to public lands such as the Appalachian Trail, the allowed density can drop to as low as one house per 20 acres. In most towns, “rural residential” zoning is defined by lot size, not density.
     Norwich's model offers a creative approach to the issue of subdivision. A large parcel can be broken up and sold off, but development may be allowed on only a small portion of the resulting subdivisions, thus clustering development and maintaining contiguous tracts of undeveloped land.
     “Over the last 10 to 15 years, Norwich has definitely been focusing on trying to change the development patterns from the '80s, when there were a lot of 10-acre lots spread out,” Dechert said. “What we're looking at a lot more now is the issue of habitat and wildlife corridors.”
     But while the focus of many town planners has shifted, what works for Norwich may not work for Hartford. There's no magic number when it comes to striking a balance between developed and undeveloped land, planners explain.
     “It's really a question that's up to towns,” said Fidel of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “They're the ones that grapple with the balance or the right amount of growth.”
     Deciding where growth should be clustered is especially challenging in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene: forest conservationists want to protect hilly woodlands, while river specialists say that development should be kept out of floodplains. Where's a town to build?
     The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission received a Forest Service grant to help town officials and private landowners deal with such issues. It's putting together recommendations for zoning and planning boards and resources for landowners to better understand forest fragmentation, “because a piece of land doesn't come with a set of instructions,” Zavez said.
     Two Rivers is especially interested in looking at how towns with low levels of fragmentation correlate with involvement in the Current Use Program, which offers tax breaks for landowners who agree to use their land for agricultural or forestry production rather than development.
     By promoting large parcels of woodlands, the planning commission is also hoping to promote local forest products like lumber and furniture as a parallel movement to local agriculture, and convince people of the value of Vermont's forests.
     “As we increasingly develop (land) and have smaller and smaller parcels, and more interruptions with power lines and roads and sewer pipes, the less intact the classic Vermont scenery is,” Zavez said. “We see (that) as a definite problem.”

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