by Will Lindner
Stewardship manager Adam Piper has experienced all kinds of adventures in the nine years he’s been visiting VLT-conserved land. He’s scaled cliffs to map boundaries, harvested pears for an elderly landowner, and herded ornery cows with a broomstick.
He looks back on these stories with a smile. But he isn’t so fond of encountering encroachments on protected land, and while not frequent, they happen more than he’d like. There was the incident where a neighbor buried a fuel tank on the conserved property next door. Another time, a farmer installed a drainage system that emptied excess water onto a neighbor’s conserved field.
VLT’s stewardship managers visit conserved land to help landowners comply with conservation limitations. They’re often the first to notice encroachments, although, as Adam points out, the intrusions aren’t always serious, nor are they always intentional: “I’ve seen situations where someone might place a shed near what they think is their property line, but it is three feet over the line. I’ve seen lawns mowed, gardens planted, and swing sets built onto conserved land.
“Often,” he explains, “if the encroachment doesn’t have a long-term effect on protected land, and the landowner doesn’t mind it, we can talk with the neighbor and ask: ‘Do you realize you’re not on your own property here?’” Resolutions can vary from immediate correction to temporary permission to continue with a longer-term plan for remediation.
More serious violations require definitive action. The question of whether the encroachment was intentional need not always be resolved (the misplaced fuel tank, Adam believes, probably wasn’t purposeful). What’s important is the remedy, and the role VLT can play in a constructive resolution.
“VLT can help maintain neighborly relationships by being the one to object,” says Adam. “But sometimes it’s important for the landowners to solve the problem themselves, with me in the background.”
The best antidote to encroachment is prevention. Adam paraphrases Robert Frost: “Good boundaries make good neighbors. Landowners should spend a little time each year making sure that boundaries are sufficiently marked.”
In VLT’s Northeast Kingdom office, stewardship forester Dan Kilborn agrees. While Adam’s region is primarily agricultural, Dan’s is mostly forested, and timber trespass—cutting trees on someone else’s land—is a concern.
“I wouldn’t say timber trespass is common here,” Dan explains, “but boundary lines that have not been maintained are very common. Despite people’s investment in their forests, boundary marking is often on the back burner.”
Forests are constantly growing, making frequent re-marking important. (Dan recommends marking trees with boundary line paint.) Consulting foresters can help find the exact location of boundaries; town records and parcel maps can also be useful, and some Vermont towns have online mapping sites.
Timber trespasses can be devastating to landowners who are deeply invested in their forest. Logging on another person’s property is also theft, and affects the landowner’s ability to harvest timber for years. In forests, as in farmlands, boundary encroachments very often are not intentional.
“But it can be hard to know,” says Dan. “Most loggers are entirely ethical, but when the boundaries aren’t clearly marked mistakes can be made.”
Dan recounts a time when a logger unknowingly cut several trees in a neighbor’s conserved forest. The trespass was discovered before the logs were removed and the owner chose not to take legal action. But instances of legal action haven’t always worked out to the landowner’s benefit. When a landowner wins a case against a trespasser, legal fees and documentation can sometimes cost more than is gained in compensation.
Timber trespass raised enough concern that the Legislature passed Act 106, which took effect this July, and can be read at legislature.vermont.gov. The act raised timber trespass to the level of a criminal offense, with fines and possible jail time. It retained the right to bring civil suit against a trespasser, and standardized the assessment of values for illegally harvested trees so they are more accurate.
The purpose of Act 106 is to deter timber trespassers and encourage awareness of property boundaries. But the best proactive step a landowner can take is to know where those boundaries are, and to mark them clearly and frequently. VLT’s stewardship staff are ready to help owners of conserved land make a plan to address this important issue.
Above: Flagging tape marks a property boundary. Photo by Caleb Kenna.