Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vermont lawmakers take on issue of forest fragmentation

I wrote this column earlier this summer

The wildlife-unfriendly issue of “forest fragmentation” just went before the Vermont Senate in Montpelier in the form of legislation to stop it in the Green Mountain State.
Too bad, though, for the state’s natural heritage that in the end corporate powers won and the legislation was tabled.
But, the very fact that proposed legislation focused on the issue is remarkable. The Vermont Senate may have set a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” record as the first state legislative body anywhere in the U.S. to address the issue.
“A proposal to limit forest fragmentation was thwarted by developers who oppose using the state’s land and development laws as a tool to keep woodlands intact, according to the lead sponsor of the bill that was gutted on the Senate floor Wednesday,” the Web-based news magazine VTDigger reported March 19.
“There’s nothing ‘complicated’ about stopping forest fragmentation,” one Vermonter commented. “This is just another episode of legislators kow-towing to the corporate interests that make campaign contributions.”
State Sen. Peter Gailbraith wrote, “The Audubon Society points out that Vermont has the most diversity of bird species of any state in the continental U.S., and the reason is our large inter-connected forests. The (Gov. Peter Shumlin) administration has itself identified fragmentation as the number one threat to biological diversity in our forests, and yet neither the administration nor the legislature is willing to do anything to prevent it. This is a tragedy.”
Galbraith also noted that the legislature’s nod to “study” the issue is only cover. “A study is the legislature’s way of killing a proposal while pretending to the voters that it is concerned about the issue.”
The bill would have required development already undergoing the Act 250 review process to maintain forest integrity, VTdigger reported. “If development must alter forests, the developer could purchase a conservation offset at another site to balance the impact.”
Act 250, a state Website explains, is “Vermont’s development and control law, established in 1970. The law provides a public, quasi-judicial process for reviewing and managing the environmental, social and fiscal consequences of major subdivisions and development in Vermont through the issuance of land use permits.”
Converting large, continuous forests into smaller woodlots (islands) has many negative impacts, especially on bird species whose reproductive success plummets in fragmented landscapes.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Forest fragmentation occurs when large, continuous forests are divided into smaller blocks, either by roads, clearing for agriculture, urbanization, or other human development. Ornithologists suspect that fragmentation harms many woodland birds by increasing their susceptibility to predation and nest parasitism.
“Predators such as jays, crows, raccoons, and cats, as well as the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, typically are not abundant in extensive forests. But when a forest is fragmented, predators and cowbirds gain more access to the woodland. The importance of large areas of continuous forest for maintaining forest-interior bird species has been demonstrated in the eastern United States during the past 15 years.”
The chopping (literally) of forests into smaller blocks is a top cause behind population declines of many native North American birds. They include the state bird of Vermont, the Hermit Thrush.
“Forest fragmentation remains an important conservation issue for many species of wildlife, including the Hermit Thrush, which prefers large tracts of forests,” wrote ornithologist Douglas P. Kibbe in “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont.”
The rate at which fragmentation is occurring is substantial greater in Pennsylvania. I know there are some folks in Harrisburg who understand the threat to the commonwealth’s natural heritage. But I’d bet that none sit in the legislature or statehouse.

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