Old Tensions Simmer Anew As Feds Plan Expansion Of Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge

Sep 11, 2017

A proposal to expand a U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge in northeast Vermont has stirred up long-running tensions between conservationists and the Vermont timber industry.

In a Sept. 1 letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Scott says he’s heard “deep concerns” from loggers, farmers and municipal officials over a plan that would conserve an additional 60,000 acres of land in Vermont in the Connecticut River watershed.

The proposal, approved by the federal government late last year, would dramatically expand the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which now encompasses about 25,000 acres in northern Vermont. The Conte refuge also includes parcels up and down the Connecticut River valley in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In his letter to Zinke, Scott references an earlier land acquisition plan, saying the way it played out "put more strain on our farm and forest economies as they compete in an increasingly competitive global market."

Tension between land conservation and the forest economy is hardly new territory for the Conte refuge, which came into existence 20 years ago when the former owner — a paper company called Champion International — decided to sell it off.

Steve Agius, who took over as manager of the Conte refuge in January, is one of the federal officials trying to manage that tension.

On cool and misty day in the remote town of Brunswick, Agius looks out at the refuge from a granite overlook near the welcome center.

“This is an exceptional view of the Nulhegan Basin, with the foliage just starting to change,” Agius says.

Even under heavy cloud cover, the view of the forest that extends beyond is postcard worthy. Agius says it’s one of the largest intact lowland spruce-fir forests in the region.

“It’s pretty rare to find something like this in New England that still exists,” Agius says. “Most of the time if you’re going to find a sub-boreal habitat like this, it’s going to be more of a higher elevation.”

The rareness of that habitat is what makes this land so important to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s also why the service wants to expand the refuge’s boundaries to include 60,000 additional acres of conserved land in Vermont up and down the Connecticut River valley.

“To benefit as much wildlife as possible, specifically migratory birds, we need a complex level of stand structure,” Agius says.

A sign near the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge welcome center warns hikers to be careful.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

And Agius says achieving that complex stand structure requires disciplined forest management practices.

“And that’s something that the Fish and Wildlife Service can do,” Agius says.

Even if the Fish and Wildlife Service can do it, however, not everyone is so sure that they want them to. 

Robbo Holleran is a consulting forester, “which means I manage private timberland for fun and profit,” he explains. A number of the private timberlands he manages fall within the proposed Conte expansion.

Holleran has been watching the Conte refuge since it was created back in 1997. He says the feds’ proposal back then seemed innocent enough: "'Maybe we’ll buy some of the wetlands areas along the river that nobody wants anyway. And we’ll put a nice sign up there and people can hunt and fish and swim and kayak and birdwatch and everything will be groovy,'" Holleran says.

But Holleran — a member of the Vermont Forest Products Association, an industry trade group — says those plans have evolved in some concerning ways.

“When they start saying, ‘Well, you know, we’d like to buy 100,000 acres of Vermont timberland,’ that just rubs us the wrong way,” Holleran says.

"When they start saying, 'Well, you know, we'd like to buy 100,000 acres of Vermont timberland,' that just rubs us the wrong way." — Robbo Holleran, consulting forester

If past is prologue, then Holleran says timberlands owned by the feds won’t be anywhere near as financially productive as they would have been otherwise.

“So it’s that predominance of privately owned land that allows the forest products industry to function, to buy wood when the price is right,” Holleran says.

And one very prominent state official shares those concerns: Gov. Phil Scott.

It isn’t that Scott is opposing the expansion outright. But he says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” for the expanded Conte refuge raises troubling concerns.

“And because of the lack of information and the unknown impacts this will have on our economy, I am very apprehensive about the federal government acquiring additional land for the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge,” Scott wrote in that recent letter to Zinke.

Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, says Scott’s concerns are predicated in part on the federal government’s track record in the Conte refuge.

“The number of acres actively harvested each year within the refuge holdings is lower as a percentage than it is certainly on private land, but also in many of our state forests,” Moore says.

Moore says that may be due to the fact that the tract had been so heavily logged prior to the federal government acquiring it. But she says the forest products economy is already dealing with other serious challenges, such as lack of access to pulp and paper mills, and potentially new trade and tariff rules with Canada.

"This just looks to be another, frankly, layer in that onion of complication that the forest products economy probably isn’t in a position to handle right now." — Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore

“And this just looks to be another, frankly, layer in that onion of complication that the forest products economy probably isn’t in a position to handle right now,” Moore says.

Standing on the banks of the Nulhegan, refuge manager Steve Agius says he appreciates the concerns coming from Scott and Holleran.

“This northeast corner of Vermont has a very rich history when it comes to logging, a very unique history, and it’s exciting to talk about,” Agius says. “It wasn’t that long ago that the river right in front of us here, they were floating logs down every spring.”

Andrew French, the project leader for the national Silvio O. Conte Fish and Wildlife Refuge, concedes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a different objective, when it comes to land management practices, than people who make a living off timber harvests.

“We harvest timber to achieve a wildlife outcome,” French says.

But, French says achieving those wildlife outcomes can sometimes require extensive timber harvests to create the desired wildlife habitat. Even when land is in conservation, he says, “there are still economic benefits” to people who make a living in the woods.

In a few months, Agius and French say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release a habitat management plan for the Nulhegan Basin, and that it will include new timber harvest plans.

"I have a feeling that those that have concerns that their voices haven't been heard in regards to a timber resource coming off the refuge should be pleased in what they see." — Steve Agius, Silvio O. Conte Refuge manager

“I have a feeling that those that have concerns that their voices haven’t been heard in regards to a timber resource coming off the refuge should be pleased in what they see,” Agius says.

And French says that if people don’t like what they see, the federal government will take input on how to make it better.

Heather Furman, state director for the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy, says her organization has been involved in the plan to expand the Conte for the past decade. She says the process to develop that plan involved public hearings, public meetings and was informed by comments submitted from more than 1,700 people.

“So we were surprised and frankly disappointed by the governor’s letter,” Furman says. “A number of the issues he raised in that letter have been covered and addressed.”

Furman says the land encompassed in the proposed Conte expansion is “really important, ecologically.”

“And having additional land conserved as part of that vision is really essential to maintaining the integrity of these habitats, and the long-term economic viability of these lands,” Furman says.

"Having additional land conserved as part of that vision is really essential to maintaining the integrity of these habitats, and the long-term economic viability of these lands." — Heather Furman, The Nature Conservancy

Furman says conserved lands deliver an array of economic benefits to the state, in the form of recreation and tourism.

“And to suggest that private land conservation, which is done between a willing seller and a willing buyer, to take that option off the table, I think really stifles the options for economic growth in the region,” Furman says. “These are decisions that are made between a private landowner and an entity that can help folks conserve their land.”

As Agius puts it, the proposed Conte expansion “isn’t eminent domain.” Any land acquired by the federal government to become part of the Conte refuge would have to be sold off willingly by a private property owner.

But Scott is also concerned about the impact of those property transfers on local municipal tax bases.

Under the proposed expansion, some Vermont towns would potentially have 40 percent of their acreage under federal ownership, according to the governor’s office. Since the federal government doesn’t pay as much to towns as a regular property tax payer, Scott says that could hurt towns that rely heavily on property tax revenues.

French says it’s true that payment from the federal government “generally … doesn’t equal what they were receiving in tax revenues when it was privately held.”

But, he says there are other funding opportunities for towns with refuge land — available through various grant programs — that might offset some of the losses.

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revises and refines its management plans for the refuge, French says there will be numerous chances for all constituencies to register their concerns.

“There’s so much common ground ... What we try to do is through this document, we try to provide a forum and foundation for communication between the different stakeholders,” French says.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy is a VPR underwriter.