Can Vermont Forestry Be As Popular As Vermont Farming?

Dec 17, 2013

Business owners, public officials, policy makers and advocates gathered Tuesday at a summit in Randolph Center to take stock of efforts to preserve the state’s working landscape.

One of the conversations that took place concerned how to create the same kind of public support for the forest products industry that there is for farming.

There’s widespread agreement that this is an exciting time in the effort to keep Vermont farm and forest land productive. 

The Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Fund, created by the legislature last year, is giving grants for a variety of agriculture and forestry projects. Many diverse value-added businesses have sprung up in recent years to support dairy and food production. Programs like Farm to Plate have capitalized on the interest in and support for locally grown foods. 

But much of the attention has been on farms, not on forests.  

One of the discussions at the Summit on the Future of Vermont’s Working Landscape was about how to drum up as much public interest in the forest products industry as there is in farming.

“Forests are really important and as it turns out, working with forest in an intelligent, close, careful, informed way is the best way to save forests,”says  Michael Snyder, commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Snyder moderated a discussion billed as a brainstorming session on ways to get Vermonters to better understand the forest products industry. 

Snyder says forests have as much to do with Vermont’s image and the working landscape as farms. They produce jobs, provide recreational opportunities and safeguard air and water quality. But discussion participants said they’re battling misconceptions about forestry practices.

"We've played second, third, fourth fiddle behind agriculture for a long time. So it's nice to see the Legislature and the Governor recognize forestry." - forester Paul Harwood

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about cutting trees.  ‘Cutting trees is bad!’ Trees are a renewable resource and we need to be cutting them to keep them healthy and productive,” says Kathleen Wanner, executive director of Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association.

Education and transparency about forestry practices, and better marketing to create a demand for locally sourced wood products were among the suggestions that came up during the panel session.

Outside the meeting, forester Paul Harwood expressed some optimism that things are changing at least in the eyes of policy makers. Harwood says the Working Lands Enterprise Fund grants have given a boost to those who depend on the forest for their livelihood. 

“We've played second, third, fourth fiddle behind agriculture for a long time. So it’s nice to see the Legislature and the Governor recognize forestry, to see the working lands groups recognize the benefits of forest management to travel and tourism, to the economy, to the very existence of why we stay here,” Harwood said.

Harwood, who oversees forest management of 40,000 acres of privately owned land in Central Vermont, is worried that there isn’t a new generation of foresters coming up behind him.

Those who work in the forest products industry say they can learn from the success of their counterparts in agriculture. But they say some fundamental differences make it more challenging for them to rally public support.

Their products are not in daily use, like the food from farms, and their work often takes place out of the public’s sight.