MONTPELIER, Vt. – Maple syrup is almost holy in Vermont, but the trees it comes from are holey from being tapped every spring. Now some in the logging industry are chopping mad about a plan that would allow maple sugar makers to operate across a wider swath of state land.
Vermont state lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand the amount of state land that could be leased by people who want to tap the trees for maple syrup. The House has passed the measure and sent it back to the Senate.
Loggers contend the bill would lead to more damage by sugar makers who drill holes in maple trees each late winter, insert taps into them and wait for the sap that runs in early spring and is boiled down to make syrup.
"You're wounding the tree," Ed Larson of the Vermont Forest Products Association said. "Over time you've basically destroyed its timber value."
Jason Gibbs, commissioner of the state Department of Forests and Parks, said the concern is overblown. He said the legislation, which would put into law an agreement between his office and the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, would expand from three to 11 the plots of land around Vermont's state forests where tapping trees is allowed.
"I certainly understand Ed's concerns and I respect them," Gibbs said. But he added that the change would affect only about 700 acres of Vermont's roughly 500,000 acres of state forest land.
The 11 tracts would be leased to maple producers who agree to pay for the privilege of tapping. Gibbs said trees in most of those tracts had been tapped in the past, so their timber value already had been compromised.
Both Gibbs and his boss, Gov. Jim Douglas, expressed confidence Wednesday that the bill would pass. Douglas called it a good balance between competing uses of the state's forest lands.
The debate comes as Vermont's timber industry has been on the skids for years, while times are sweet for syrup producers.
"There's no doubt the forest products industry has been struggling, while the price of syrup has been relatively high and stable for a few years," Gibbs said.
Vermont is the leading maple syrup producer in the United States, producing about 500,000 gallons in 2008, nearly a third of the national total. Sugar makers say they can't keep up with demand — hence the push for more production.
Maple syrup has been selling recently for more than $50 a gallon in many locations. Meanwhile, Alan Manchester, who operates a sawmill in Johnson, said wholesale lumber prices had declined sharply with the economic downturn in the past year.
Manchester said a good veneer-quality maple log 16 inches in diameter still can fetch $300 to $400 in the marketplace for wholesale hardwood. "Put in a tap hole and the same log might be worth $25," he said.
But state Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, whose family owns Copeland Furniture, a company specializing in high-end Vermont-made hardwood furniture, said she doubted the impact on loggers would be that high.
Tap holes are rarely drilled higher than 6 feet above the ground. "There's a lot of tree above the tap hole," Copeland Hanzas said.
"Tap holes are tap holes," she said. "But there are a lot of furniture makers who work them into furniture. They consider it to add character."
Larson said he was glad the expanded tree tapping would be limited, but that he worried about further expansion in the future.
And Rick Marsh, president of the Maple Sugar Makers' Association, said his group hopes the state makes more land available in the years to come.
"A lot of producers have asked me about it," Marsh said. "We would like to see more sites opened up in the future."