Follow Route 100 north along the spine of the Green Mountains, through Waterbury, through Stowe, and into Morristown. If you’re counting barns as you wind through Morristown, you’ll run out of fingers, especially after you turn left onto Morristown Corners Road, left onto Walton Road, and after a few miles right onto Beaver Meadow Road. Now you’re several miles down a dirt road, and most of what you see is red barns, tractors, and northern hardwood forest peppered with meadows.
At the end of Beaver Meadow Road, it’s time to make the rest of the journey on foot. Up the trail, through the woods, and after half a mile or so you’ll pass a white pine a foot in diameter, wrapped in orange flagging and with an orange stake at its base. Now you are in the Morristown Town Forest, a parcel of land with a past that exemplifies the history of town forests in Vermont.
“Town forests were part of the original plan of Vermont,” said Ray Toolan, the county forester for Lamoille and Orleans counties, on a guided hike last month organized by the Staying Connected Initiative. The Staying Connected Initiative is a collaborative effort led by The Nature Conservancy to preserve land that links important wildlife habitat throughout Vermont.
Forest cleared, then restored
Prior to European settlement, 95 percent of Vermont’s land area was forested. According to Toolan, every town that was established was required to have a town forest as a source of revenue from timber. Given that there are 255 towns, cities, gores and grants in the state, that meant a lot of town forests.
Morristown, like many Vermont towns, sold off its original town forest land. In the late 1800s, forested land cover in Vermont dropped to just 15 percent.
“You’ve got to wrap your head around this was a farm,” said Toolan, gesturing to the stone walls that wind among the trees in Morristown Town Forest.
But in the late 1800s, the building of the railroad made it economical to raise sheep on the rich, loamy soils of the Midwest. Raising sheep in Vermont was abandoned.
In the 1950s, Vermont began to invest in a massive reforestation effort to rebuild the state’s eroded soils and provide income from timber. The state funded the purchase of town forests, and at that point in time, many towns bought land, including Morristown.
Toolan said that in spite of the state’s investment in nurseries and planting trees, most of the state’s forests grew back on their own. Now, 85 percent of Vermont’s land area is forested. Having tracts of land set aside for forest was an important part of that process.
The stands of Norway spruce and white pine in Morristown Town Forest that were planted in the 1960s are now shady and open under the canopy, with trees eight inches in diameter.
According to Toolan, management of Morristown Town Forest has been fairly hands-off since the 1960s. But Toolan and the Morristown selectboard, which manages the forest, are beginning to see the forest as a resource not just for timber, but also for conservation and recreation.
“We’re starting to reignite the management aspect in this forest again,” said Toolan.
Now, Toolan plans to gradually harvest the trees that don’t belong, including non-native Norway spruce and red pine (which is native, but doesn’t naturally grow in the habitat present in Morristown Town Forest). He envisions a native forest with stands of trees and shrubs of varying ages, a condition that is ideal for supporting a diversity of wild animals.
“What is this forest going to do if we weren’t messing with it?” asked Toolan. He believes that his job is to “work with it to extract what you need from it without destroying the system it’s already got going.”
Toolan is working with Doug Small, a logger who lives down the road from the town forest, to select and harvest the non-native trees. On the hike, Small ambled comfortably through the woods in a loose black T-shirt and jeans, a cap advertising a local creamery, and sturdy brown work boots. Small’s operation consists of a small skidder and a chainsaw.
“Logging, if it’s done right, is a very good thing,” he said.
State and federal programs
These days, there are roughly 100 Vermont towns that have municipal forests, according to Ginger Anderson, the chief of Forest Resource Management for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Knowing exactly how many there are is difficult.
“This is because a town may have multiple green space acres that may be considered town forest land — even if it is locally known as the ‘School Forest’ or ‘the Natural Area’ or even a park that has some forest associated with it,” said Anderson.
According to documents available on the Barre Town website, town forest land makes up about 66,000 acres of public land in Vermont. Sometimes towns acquire town forests when private property owners forfeit their land because they can no longer pay taxes, said Anderson. This happened particularly in the 1930s and 1940s.
“But it has also provided other values — the floor of the Hinesburg Town Hall was harvested from their forest, for example. The biggest value to most towns is the protection of their municipal watershed, which is why much of Montpelier’s town forest is located in the town of Berlin (several towns own forest in other towns for this reason),” said Anderson.
Now, towns typically expand their forest land to protect their watershed or to provide recreational opportunities. Anderson believes that municipal forest land area is increasing in Vermont.
But she is quick to point out that overall, Vermont is gradually losing forested land to development and agriculture.
“We have begun to see declines in the number of acres of forest in Vermont in the past decade. So keeping forests in forests, whether they are public or private is important for watershed, wildlife, and Vermont’s outdoor recreation and wood products industries.”
Management of town forests is a highly collaborative endeavor. The state Forests, Parks and Recreation department help towns craft management plans when watershed protection is a concern. Community members can provide input on management to the selectboard, or they may even assist in management activities, such as trail maintenance. Local school groups may help, too.
In recent years, the state has continued to support community forests. Sen. Patrick Leahy authored the Forest Legacy Program in the 1990 Farm Bill, which to date has conserved over 2 million acres nationwide. Leahy also authored the Community Forest Program in the 2008 Farm Bill, and is leading the effort to renew that program in the 2012 Farm Bill currently before Congress.
As a result of the 2008 Community Forest Program, Barre Town was recently awarded a grant of $400,000 to add 384 acres to its existing 26 acres of forested land.
The municipal forest already owned by the Barre Town is not considered a town forest by town officials, said Carl Rogers, the Barre Town manager. The land was acquired 10 years ago and has no management plan. It is, however, used for recreation.
The addition of the new and much larger forest is not only a move that supports logging, recreation and wildlife. A study by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont found that this land acquisition would stimulate Barre’s economy. It is anticipated to create 20 new jobs and provide steady income from timber sales. In fact, for every $1 invested in the land, Barre can expect to gain $22 in income by 2015.
Leahy commented, “At a time when both the economy and the environment are under siege, this is a victory with something for everyone.”
Vermont Family Forest executive director David Brynn talks about town forests being places where locals can feel that they are members of a human and ecological community.
“A town forest is owned by the community. To varying degrees the cultivation of the forest is directed by the local community members and — when successful — people of the community see themselves as being members of or having access to those community forests. When successful, there’s a dynamic relationship between the people and the land.”
Toolan believes that the relationship that locals have with their neighboring forests is critical to their wellbeing.
“The forest does not need us. We need it.”