Ag secretary lends ear to landowners

Last modified: 8/10/2010 12:00:00 AM
Joseph Cartwright owns 430 acres in Alstead. He has cut timber and sold firewood, but he said he can't make a living off his land.

"Before you cut a tree, you give 35 percent to government agencies," Cartwright said, citing a litany of federal and state taxes. "If you can correct that so you make money owning land, the conservation problem will solve itself."

Cartwright was one of nearly 300 people - including advocates, landowners and foresters - who attended a listening session with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen yesterday at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord.

Since June, senior administration officials have held 18 listening sessions around the country as part of President Obama's "America's Great Outdoors" initiative. The goal of the initiative is to develop a federal plan for conserving land, both through government and private groups, and for encouraging Americans to spend time outdoors. The New Hampshire session was the only one that has focused on preserving private working forests.

State officials said New Hampshire is the second most forested state in the country, after Maine, with 84 percent of state land covered by forests. "Our working forest is part of the fabric of the state," Shaheen said.

In recent years, the state has had a checkered history of supporting conservation through the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, or LCHIP. A recent bill filling the state budget hole took $1.5 million from LCHIP to balance the budget - bringing the total amount of money that the state has diverted from the fund to $4.5 million, according to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

Nonetheless, Gov. John Lynch said yesterday that the state has done a good job of both protecting forests and moving toward renewable energy sources, such as timber and other biomass.

"We have a proud tradition of ensuring we have a balance between protecting our forests and ensuring conservation, and appropriately using them for our economy," Lynch said.

 Vital resources

On a federal level, Shaheen and Vilsack both said they recognize the importance of an outdoor recreation industry that brings New Hampshire an estimated $4 billion a year in retail sales revenue.

Vilsack said forests are vital as a source of clean water and as a home to wildlife, and are also an asset in fighting climate change. Forests provide opportunities for hunting, fishing and hiking, and give jobs to people in rural communities.

"Forests are worth as much as $730 billion to the nation's economy," Vilsack said. "Conserving forests is not something we should choose to do, it's something we must do."

Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is putting new emphasis on conserving lands across ownership boundaries, including federal and state lands in addition to the 56 percent of the country's forests that are on private property. But he said private lands also face significant dangers of development - including many in New Hampshire.

"There's an implication for water quality, at-risk species, timber production and forest health," Vilsack said. "Urban development exacerbates each threat."

During a panel discussion, eight conservation activists, businesspeople and landowners, highlighted the difficulties of preserving land.

New Hampshire State Forester Brad Simpkins said the state and municipalities need to do a better job of making sure that land-use regulations and tax structures make it easier, not harder, to conserve land. The process of conserving land should also be made smoother.

"We need to ensure we don't inadvertently create barriers for people to keep forests as forests," Simpkins said.

Dave Tellman, a Whitefield landowner and past president of the New Hampshire Timber Landowners Association, said there needs to be government funding for conservation easements. In the North Country, Tellman said, there are farmers with large pieces of property that have been in their families for generations. But in order to get a conservation easement, they would need to pay a large amount of money to survey their land and get a clearer title.

"People want to donate, but developers are standing outside the door," Tellman said. "If it looks like you will have to spend money to donate, you aren't going to donate."

In some cases, the biggest problem for landowners is finding markets for their products. Tellman said that in the 1990s, when all the state's mills were running, pulp sold for $6 to $9 a ton. Over the last two years, there has been no pulp market and fuel chips are going for $3 a ton. Last week, Tellman said he signed a contract for $1 a ton.

"There's not a lot of point in harvesting at $1 a ton," Tellman said. "The resources are out there, but unless landowners are compensated fairly for the resources, they may stay in the woods."

Tom and Laurel Martin, a retired couple who own a 111-acre tree farm in Salisbury, told the Monitor they logged their land a couple of years ago, and the loggers had trouble selling the wood. At one point, they had to stop logging because the mill would not take a certain type of wood.

The Martins, who allow hunting on their property and have public trails, have had other problems as well. Sometimes, ATV drivers leave muddy ruts on their property. Once, a person in a pickup truck knocked over 30 feet of corn on property the Martins rent to a corn farmer.

"I put a sign up saying 'no vehicles,' " Tom Martin said. "I didn't say please."

 Clean energy

Peter Stein of Lyme Timber Co. said during the panel discussion that some of the marketing problems could be solved through creating new markets - for example, finding ways to pay landowners for woody biomass. Walter Graff, vice president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, said the government could also do more with giving private landowners incentives to allow public access to their property. Jamey French, president of Northland Forest Products, suggested that more needs to be done to encourage banks to finance the forestry industry and encourage children to go into forestry.

Vilsack said he agrees that there are numerous ways government can get involved with forest preservation - through tax policy, funding for conservation programs and assistance in managing lands. Vilsack said the traditional markets for wood and paper must be maintained but mixed with new jobs in green buildings, energy products and carbon sequestration, which is a way of removing carbon from the atmosphere. This past June, state foresters throughout the country completed a project mapping out their natural resources.

"As budgets tighten, these assessments will give valuable information to focus dollars so they have maximum impact and effect," Vilsack said.

In the current economic climate, when members of Congress are facing increasing criticism about government spending and the growing national debt, it may be difficult for environmental programs to obtain additional funding.

Shaheen said that is why Congress must pass a clean energy bill that will create incentives for using biomass and will also create opportunities for wind, hydro and other sources of clean, alternative energy.

Vilsack said the question for him is how to use existing resources wisely. He said he can make a strong case that investing in clean water, air, energy production and job growth is worthwhile.

"We'll focus on the broad payback, the return on the investment," Vilsack said.

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