A Nice Guy with A Bad Idea: Senator Leahy’s Northern Forest Stewardship Act

As if the forest industry didn’t have its hands full in dealing with rules, regulations and permitting at the state and local levels, along comes Senator Leahy and the Northern Forest Stewardship Act (S 546), with its capacity for more federal intrusion and “pork” for buying up and tying up land.

“this is one little piggy that should stay in committee and never leave Washington”

Maybe it’s the “pork” which has attracted him and the rest of the Senators from the region to sign on, but if we look closely, we might decide that this is one little piggy that should stay in committee and never leave Washington.

It’s a land acquisition bill aimed at what has been packaged as the “Northern Forest”. It will also give the federal government indirect access to set standards and increase regulation on privately-owned land. Critics of the Act say that if it ever becomes law, it has the capacity, over time, to harm and in some cases destroy the economy within the 26- million-acre, four-state area of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Eastern New York.

Senator Leahy’s handiwork has the support of the 40 environmental groups which make up the Northern Forest Alliance and of enough large landowners to create the illusion for the Congressional delegation that it has broad public support. It doesn’t. Organizations like the Farm Bureau, Vermont Forest Products Association, POST (Property Owners Standing Together) and the Associated Industries of Vermont oppose it, and recently the Northeastern Vermont Development Association voted to oppose it. Spokesmen for the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the Sportsman’s Alliance for the Vermont Environment spoke recently on recreational concerns with the Stewardship Act. If Vermont is like Maine, the grassroots of the industry instinctively don’t like it; it smells to them like more regulation.

“the grassroots of the industry instinctively don’t like it; it smells to them like more regulation”

In Maine, we defeated the Compact for Maine’s Forests in two public referenda. The Compact was an agreement between the large landowners and environmentalists. (If anyone is interested to read the Compact and our reasons for opposing it, the website is still active at www.stopcompact.com.) It was filled with much of the same kind of language as the Stewardship Act, so we know what it is: more rules, regulations and unintended consequences.

“it’s a full-employment act for Green groups”

It’s a full-employment act for Green groups which have targeted the Northeast for the environmental industry’s brand of preservation. It’s their “money tree”. Under the guise of “sustainable forest management” and “land conservation”, the NFSA will provide more tools for conversion of private land to public land, through outright purchase and through conservation easements.

With conversion to public land or reduction in its value through easements and sale of development rights, comes a reduction in property taxes to the communities, thereby increasing the taxes for the remaining property owners. Although the NFSA directs the state to establish in Section 6 (b)(9) a goal of “minimization of adverse tax consequences to municipalities..”, there are few who believe it would happen.”One legislature can’t bind the next” Maine legislators are fond of saying as they reduce or forget the prior agreements with the towns and cities made by their predecessors. Does the Vermont legislature keep its commitments to municipalities?

“with money and “help” from Washington comes strings from Washington”

The recent Conference on the Stewardship Act held in St. Johnsbury, sponsored by Associated Industries of Vermont, asked the question “Should The Government Control Our Forests? That really is the central question. Because with money and “help” from Washington comes strings from Washington.

“The Devil’s in the details,” the old expression goes, and with the Stewardship Act, it will be government employees and hoards of Green activists, not the working people, who will manipulate the implementation if it ever becomes law. People who are busy earning a living can’t take the time to attend endless sessions to work out details.

We in the Northeast are “babes in the woods” compared to the Westerners who have seen whole communities and regional economies destroyed by this kind of federal proposal and who are good at reading between the lines.

“the camel’s nose under the tent”

Seasoned observers like Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association say we have no idea what’s in store for us if Leahy’s bill passes, that the NFSA is the camel’s nose under the tent. He predicts that, with the feds providing the money and the state buying the land, gradually the “Greenlined” 26-million-acres would be divided into a series of state parks, wildlife refuges, national parks, and other special designations with the end result that one-third could end up in restricted zones. As they checkerboard the area, there would be restrictions placed on adjacent private land where logging is going on, road closures would take place, more restrictions, and systematically it would become less economical. Mills would close, tax bases reduced, forcing additional departures and selling of development rights. What happened out West would happen here. Communities would dry up. Through land acquisition, they would buy pockets of land from private individuals who couldn’t hang on, undercutting the ability of people who are left, and the cycle would continue, ratcheting down over time.

“the result will be federal involvement in local land issues on a heretofore unprecedented scale in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York”

James Burling of the Pacific Legal Foundation says “The bill attempts to paper over concerns (of massive federal intervention) by purporting to facilitate only the provision of ‘technical assistance’ and the like to the states at the request of the state governors. However, the details speak louder than this, and the result will be federal involvement in local land issues on a heretofore unprecedented scale in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.”

“Section 6,” according to Burling, “enables the two federal agencies most averse to private land ownership, the National Park Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to ‘provide technical and financial assistance for a State-managed public land acquisition planning process and land acquisition initiatives directed by the State that employ a variety of conservation tools.’ This is the key to the entire statute: a scheme for promoting government land acquisition. It is safe to say that virtually every other sentence of the Act–from the promotion of public education to the platitudes about sustainable forestry–are included for the primary purpose of burying this key section.”

“landowners have been forced to sell as ‘willing sellers’ when the agencies made life unbearable for the owners to stick it out”

Section 6(b)(2) states that acquisition shall be had only from “willing sellers, with community support. Section 6 (c ) also repeats the requirement that sellers be willing. Burling observes, “Too often landowners have been forced to sell to the federal government as ‘willing sellers’ when the agencies made life unbearable for the owners to stick it out as an inholder or resident in an area coveted by a federal agency.”

Leahy tried unsuccessfully to sneak his “Skewership Act” through Congress by quietly piggybacking it onto another bill. However, he did succeed in getting Section 4, a research section, attached to other legislation and it is now law.

“all the marks of a backroom deal”

A groundswell of opposition to the Stewardship Act has developed across the four states and people are demanding field hearing on this far-reaching proposal, to expose it to public scrutiny before any further Congressional action. I have touched on only a few concerns here.

The NFSA has all the marks of a backroom deal which could alter your way of life and affect the way you make your living; it’s a lot like asking you to finance and participate in making the noose that will hang you later. Bringing bad ideas out into the light where the public can get a good look at them makes sense. Field hearings could shame Senator Leahy into withdrawing his offensive legislation.

468 ad