In This State: Taking the ‘Long’ view

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

Stephen Long

Stephen Long and his dog Woody in his 100-acre woods in Corinth. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

With his dog running along side, and a hermit thrush offering song from afar, Stephen Long hikes his woods, reflecting on the practical and sublime aspects of having trees.

Woody, 8, an English cocker, now begins bouncing over slash, the brushy remains of some logging. With his long black ears flapping, he’s looking for rodents. In the fall, in thicker woods, he and Long hunt for grouse.

“This is very important to me,” says Long, reverentially, of his 100 acres, consisting mostly of hardwood, many growing straight and elegantly on this broad hillside of Corinth.

“This woods has been a home for 25 years,” says Long. “Drop me in blindfolded anywhere, and I will know where I am.”

“Know your land, and know what you want from it,” is a message readers will draw from a new book Long edited and helped write. It’s titled “More Than a Woodlot: Getting the Most From Your Family Forest,” and it is published by Northern Woodlands, the magazine Long founded with his neighbor Virginia Barlow, a forester, 18 years ago.

“There are pleasures to be found in tending a piece of land, improving its capacity for wildlife, increasing the value of its crop of wood, ensuring that it protects water quality and quantity, and guaranteeing that it plays a role in purifying the air and sequestering carbon.”

Long is taking me on a walk along a logging road on his property, pointing first to white pines, and then farther along, birches, and then finally beeches and sugar maples. Some year he might harvest some of these maples, hoping they will provide valuable veneer-quality logs.

Though he says he probably could rent out sugar maples for tapping, he resists the temptation because of concerns tap holes reduce the value of the wood. He concedes, with a laugh, that whether such damage occurs has long been a matter of debate between him and an editor with whom he worked at Northern Woodlands.

Long knows every stand of trees, every spot along a network of trails established by humans and animals. A tour guide, he points out, with some surprise, moose droppings, and then he shows blisters on beech trees caused by the ‘beech bark disease,’ that’s damaging beeches throughout the state; and then he gestures to several pits in the earth where big trees were uprooted during the Hurricane of 1938.

The hurricane interests him considerably. “It had a profound affect on the forests of New England,” he says, mentioning that it tore up what was to become his land while blowing down more than 6 billion board feet of trees region-wide.

The impact of the ’38 hurricane on woodlands is the focus of his research this year at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., where he was granted a fellowship after leaving Northern Woodlands last year. He plans to write a book on the hurricane, its forest destruction and the social and economic repercussions.

Long continues his tour, taking me up a knoll to see what he believes may have been “witness” or “boundary-line” trees used to mark a property line by a surveyor as far back as the 18th century.

“I cored one, and went back at least to 1830,” he says.

Reading “More than a Woodlot” is the next best thing to hiking a forest with Long. It’s a primer. It helps a landowner appreciate and manage his or her wooded property whether it consists of eight acres or 800, whether the family’s had eight weeks or eight generations.

The book suggests best ways to prepare a tract for wildlife, for recreation, for timber harvesting, or for all three.

“Forests are natural systems that contain resources that have commercial value,” Long writes, but he stresses there are ways “to capture some of that value” without causing degradation.

Stephen Long

Stephen Long, editor and part writer of the newly published book “More Than a Woodlot: Getting the Most From Your Family Forest." Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

The book helps readers learn how to find a professional forester to study and consult on how best to manage the land; how to pick a responsible logger, if logging is to be done; and how to calculate returns on investment. It is high on the concept of stewardship: “There are pleasures to be found in tending a piece of land, improving its capacity for wildlife, increasing the value of its crop of wood, ensuring that it protects water quality and quantity, and guaranteeing that it plays a role in purifying the air and sequestering carbon.”

Of course, one option, he says, is to just leave a forest alone, to let nature do its thing. “The forest doesn’t need us; we need the forest.”

On our tour, Long says New England’s forest face two major threats: the further breaking up of large woodland holdings into ever-smaller parcels; and the appearance of invasive species, both plant and insect.

With the continuous arrival of urban refugees willing to pay more for land, owners of large forestlands are constantly tempted to break up their property for sales. Many new immigrants balk at the idea of harvesting trees, and that reluctance threatens the future of the forest-products industry.

Fewer forest acres available for harvesting could result in a further weakening the region’s forest-products infrastructure, which in turn could mean willing landowners in years ahead will get even less for their trees.

A few of the troublesome invasive plants he mentions are buckthorn, autumn olive, honeysuckle and barberry, all fast growing and spreading once their seeds have been dispersed, usually by birds. The shrubs are problematic because they can take over a landscape, preventing tree growth.

The invasive insects most feared at this point are Asian long-horned beetle, a maple tree killer found as far north as Worcester, Mass.; and the emerald ash borer, which was first found in Michigan and appears to be moving inexorably east.

“A lot of people are cutting ash now,” Long says as he points out a few stately white ash trees among the maples. “They are so straight, wonderful to work with, and they have a beautiful grain.” He says he cut ash last year, but now is holding off for a while. “You hope, but you just don’t know,” he says.

Long grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., but spent his summers at a camp his father bought in the Adirondacks the year he was born, 1953. He would swim, canoe, hike, climb mountains, and built tree forts all summer, then return to the city. “It was a classic city-mouse, country-mouse situation,” he says.

“And I developed a tremendous love for the woods.”

His urban-versus-rural experience helped him understand the occasional conflict between newcomers, who arrive in Vermont in desperate need of greenery, and natives or long-timers who have different values. “There’s a gap between the people who want the land for a view and those who use the land for product,” he says.

His urban-versus-rural experience helped him understand the occasional conflict between newcomers, who arrive in Vermont in desperate need of greenery, and natives or long-timers who have different values. “There’s a gap between the people who want the land for a view and those who use the land for product,” he says.

And he worked to bridge that divide when he was the editor of Northern Woodlands, where readers will find nature columns next to ads for chainsaws and cable skidders. One can both hug and cut trees.

Coming down from the hillside, Long spots something unusual in a skid trail last used about six years ago: five ankle-high seedlings standing in a two-foot long row as if they were a tiny green color guard.

“Balsam, spruce, pine, hemlock and tamarack, but where did that tamarack come from?” he wonders aloud.

“I always look for signs of regeneration,” he says later.

Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vt.., freelance reporter and editor.

Dirk Van Susteren

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  • George Plumb

    It is not just “..the further breaking up of large woodland holdings into ever-smaller parcels…” it also declining forest cover for the first time in a century and half dues to population growth! This is actually happening in all of the New England states and R.I. could have little forest cover left in not too many years. It would be great if those who love and manage the forests would speak the full truth about what is happening to our forests.

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