Tom Evslin: Vermont needs more forest and housing, but sacred cows are in the way

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Green Mountains weren’t. Extensive logging, hillside sheep farming, and clearing for homesteads left both hills and valleys bare. Periodic flooding was a terrible problem. Burlington was still a major shipping point for logs but most of came from Quebec. Tourists preferred the still-wooded mountains in New Hampshire and New York.

Tom Evslin

But, by 1850, sheep farming in Vermont had already lost out to competition in the western US and all the way west to Australia and New Zealand.  Dairy was in its ascendancy as the railroads opened up new markets for Vermont milk through the East. Contrary to legend, there are no hill cows with shorter legs on one side to facilitate sloped-grazing. Many of the hillside farms were simply abandoned by owners who bought land in the valleys if they could and helped settle the American west if they couldn’t. The first town forests were pieced together from abandoned lands with tax liens, which would never be satisfied. Slowly the trees marched back down from the ridges.

The forests continued to grow vertically and horizontally, mostly through natural reseeding of former farm and industrial land, through the year 2000. It reached a new peak of about 76% coverage. As you can see on the graph, however, we are now slowly losing forest to development.

We now realize the importance of forests. They take enormous amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and make the soil richer by storing carbon there. They reduce flooding. They clean the water which percolates through them. They provide lumber, the greenest building material except perhaps for sod, and habitat for countless species. It’s fun to play in the woods. We need more forest, not less.

We need habitat for people, too. We can and should make it easier to build housing in towns and cities, but not everyone wants an urban life or finds employment there. Many people who might move to Vermont for the jobs we can’t fill now want to leave city life. Many of the Vermonters who would like to stay want to be rural. How can we have both more housing and more forests?

In 1987 Vermont, realizing that housing and conservation are indivisible issues, created the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) whose mission is in 10 VSA Chapter 15:

(a) The dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the State.

(b) In the best interests of all of its citizens and in order to improve the quality of life for Vermonters and to maintain for the benefit of future generations the essential characteristics of the Vermont countryside, and to support farm, forest, and related enterprises, Vermont should encourage and assist in creating affordable housing and in preserving the State’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas and recreational lands, and in keeping conserved agricultural land in production and affordable for future generations of farmers.

The VHCB has had a huge role both in preserving both farms and forests and in building affordable housing. During the pandemic the state funds allocated to the Board have leveraged truly huge amounts of federal funds which require a match. Nevertheless our housing shortage is growing and our forests are shrinking.

Part of the problem is that, with a finite amount of land, you can’t protect everything you have and still grow. The objectives in (a) above are in competition with each other. If the VHCB had been established in 1890, it would have been trying to keep the sheep farms in operation. If it had succeeded (which it wouldn’t have), the hills would still be bare and the forests wouldn’t have regrown.

Although there are still successful dairy farms in Vermont, Vermont dairy as a whole is in the situation sheep farming was almost two centuries ago. According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business.

IMO the state programs are counter-productive and have actually hurt the industry they are meant to help. The underlying problem is that there is not enough demand to support a price for milk greater than the cost of production in Vermont. Keeping money-losing farms in business makes it harder for those with better economics to succeed. The more milk that is taken off the market by farms going out of business, the better the chance of the most efficient farms being able to flourish. At best, the state programs are postponing the inevitable. At worst, they’re exacerbating the problem of oversupply.

We can keep most Vermont farmland productively in agriculture if we do what has been done so many times before: change to a profitable crop. Failing dairy farms can be converted to a combination of forest land and housing. Vermont will look different with more trees and less open pasture, cornfields, and hay fields along its highways; but adaptation is necessary.

If the combination of revenue from some development, wood harvesting, and carbon credits for the carbon sequestered by the trees is large enough, the land can be sold for enough to allow selling farm families a happy retirement — or a chance to go into the forestry business. My hope is that with some change of regulations and permitting reform, private capital and the opportunity for profit can make this conversion to a wood crop a sustainable program without the need for constant subsidy. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is in an excellent — although contentious — position to balance the goals it was given by the legislature. Some legislation will be required to make clear that, although keeping the land dairy farms are on productive is essential, preserving them as dairy farms is not.