Nulhegan Abenaki working to create state’s first tribal forest

The sugarhouse in the Barton forest property that the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe hopes to acquire. Photo courtesy Luke Willard

There is a forest in Barton that may keep a culture alive, educate children and nourish the hungry. It could be a place where a people who lost nearly everything, and who have struggled long and hard for their rights, will feel a sense of ownership.

The owner of the land will, through a conservation easement, sell the development rights to the Vermont Land Trust so that it is never developed. Anyone, from any community, will be able to visit and enjoy the forest.

But this place is different in one profound way: it would be the first communal land of the Nulhegan Abenaki in 200 years.

The property, 68 acres off May Farm Road, visible from Interstate 91, is a mature and functioning sugarbush. Aside from two small clearings, the land is forested. Hiking trails loop through its sloping terrain, and wildlife, including grouse, deer, bear and moose, abound.

Abenaki Helping Abenaki Inc., a nonprofit organization of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, is hoping to buy the parcel with the support of the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club. They’ve currently raised more than 85 percent of the funds needed and hope to close on the deal in November or December.

“It’s Nulhegan’s way of saying that we are conserving land for us, for everybody, for the people that we neighbor,” said Luke Willard, trustee and former chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe.

The Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe was formally recognized by the state last year, after pushing for recognition for decades. Currently the tribe has no communal meeting place and no income. Its 1,000 members are among the most economically depressed of Vermont residents in the most economically depressed region of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom.

The tribe envisions the forest as a sort of outdoor community center.

“We have a handful of elders who still gather wild medicines. Living in unit C3 of the local trailer park doesn’t necessarily provide you with a forest to be able to gather those medicines from,” said Willard.

Ferns in the 68-acre Barton forest. Photo courtesy Luke Willard

For years, two Nulhegan Abenaki women, Billie Largy and Lucy Neel, have taught local schoolchildren how to gather medicinal plants. As the number of children has grown to 60 or more at a time, they’ve struggled to find outdoor classrooms. With the purchase of the tribal forest, they’ll have one.

For the past two years, Willard has offered a portion of his land for a community garden, where families can grow food they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, using traditional Abenaki agricultural methods. Without the garden, Willard said, “these practices could be extinct in as little as a few years.”

The garden has been a success, but participants still feel that they are imposing on Willard’s land. Now, the tribe plans to garden in an existing clearing in the tribal forest.

“With a tribal forest, with a forest that is owned by the community, it’s owned by everybody, so that you have a sense of ownership, you don’t feel like you’re borrowing from somebody,” said Willard.

Harvesting maple sap from the forest could bring in up to $30,000 a year for the tribe, which could pay the costs of owning and managing the property as well as expanding programs for those in need, like the food shelf. This, in turn, would lighten the load on Vermont taxpayers.

Don Stevens, the chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe, sees more than a forest.

“If you look at it from a native perspective, it’s a place where our ancestors have walked, and held the dirt in their hands, and fed their families from it,” he said. “Technically, would we own it, yes, but you know we’re stewards, we only take care of it for future generations. It means a lot, it makes us grounded, rooted, it gives people a sense of home.”

Winning state recognition was a long fight, said Willard, because some people were afraid that the tribe would make land claims or build casinos. Willard wants people to see that the Nulhegan Abenaki have no interest in those things.

“There is a little bit of Abenaki people wanting to prove to a culture that has made a lot of assumptions and accusations, I’ll admit that this is an Abenaki community wanting to prove those assumptions wrong,” said Willard. “Come up here and plant a garden, come up here and walk the trails, come up here and learn that that flower will take care of your headache and it’s a lot cheaper than a bottle of ibuprofen, come up here and learn about your neighbors that you may have been reluctant to learn about.”

A poster promoting the formation of tribal forests. Photo courtesy David van Deusen

The land is part of the Vermont Sierra Club’s Our Forests, Our Future campaign to conserve wildlife corridors by supporting the establishment and growth of town and tribal forests. The Barton property is within a zone identified by conservation groups as essential to regional wildlife habitat connectivity.

David van Deusen, a conservation organizer with the Vermont Sierra Club, sees this tribal forest as a model. “In the years to come we hope to use this first modest tribal forest as a model to point to and say this is a way to move forward in tribal conservation in the state of Vermont.”

While traditional conservation often focuses on protecting endangered species, van Deusen and others say this forest will help protect an endangered culture, too.

Tracy Zschau, Northeast Kingdom regional director for the Vermont Land Trust, said the purchase of the property is “not a done deal.” The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which will co-hold the conservation easement with the Vermont Land Trust, agreed to contribute $112,000. Another grant has yielded $40,000. The remaining $20,000 will come from grants or private sources.

Willard, citing an Abenaki ideal of making decisions that benefit seven generations, from one’s great-grandparents to one’s great-grandchildren, is satisfied that even though “it’s just a drop in the bucket,” the tribal forest will have long-term effects.

“You can see that a project such as this, the act that this current generation has taken to procure a small piece of land that will be here forever, that will be a resource not only to the tribe but will be an asset shared with all people — native, non-native, doesn’t matter — this will be a huge impact on seven generations, and seven more, and seven more, and seven more.”

Those seeking to support the purchase of this tribal forest can contact Tracy Zschau, of the Vermont Land Trust, at [email protected]

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Audrey Clark

About Audrey

Audrey Clark writes articles on climate change and the environment for VTDigger, including the monthly column Landscape Confidential. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from Prescott College in Arizona, she worked as a field ecology research assistant and college teaching assistant for five years. Among her adventures during that period, Audrey identified tiny flowers while kneeling on the burning ground in the Mojave Desert in the summer, interviewed sea turtle poachers in Africa, and tracked wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Audrey began studying the nature of Vermont in 2010 and received her master’s of science from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program in 2012. She has worked as a freelance environmental journalist since then. She also works at UVM’s Pringle Herbarium, where she handles 100-year-old plant specimens. Audrey is learning fiddle and scientific illustration and lives in Burlington with her partner, cat, several dozen guppies, a few shrimp, and too many snails.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Vincent Illuzzi

    As one of the state senators from the NEK, it has been my pleasure to actively support this project. I am proud to live in a state where we can forge such creative, new, approaches to deal with the issues of wildlife conservation, economic development, and setting right the historic wrongs suffered by the Native American people. This is the “Vermont Way.”

  • Senator, thank you for supporting this tribal forest project, and also thank you for your work concerning state recognition of the Abenaki Tribes. I can say with confidence that the Sierra Club and our partners are very excited and pleased to work on a project, such as this, where we really get to serve the interests of the local community, the environment, and the original Vermonters; the Abenaki.

  • Kristin Sohlstrom

    Folks in Vermont need to have a clear understanding of something called “The Northern Forest.” Private property ownership is NOT the ultimate goal and the map extends down to Washington County, Vermont. Millstone Trails is also connected with a partner of the Northern Forest. What this basically is, is a way for the government via many different groups, to have their thumb on property so THEY determine what’s best, not you.

  • George Plumb

    Vermont forest cover is now declining for the first time in over a century thanks to unending and unsustainable population growth and development. Unlike the previous decline for farming and the forests could recover when the farms stopped operating this time the land will not be able to recover. We need to protect our forests for a wide variety of reasons includiong climate change, an energy source, and tourism. Great work Sierra Club for also recognizing and supporting native Americans.

    • Lance Hagen

      George, really …….. “unsustainable population growth”. Vermont’s population only grow by 2.9% over the last 11 years.

      Exactly what is your number for ‘sustainable’ population growth?

  • George Plumb

    That was still about 17,000 people. It is not the percentage but the actual numbers that are important. And we are part of and adding to the global population. I am estimating that with peak oil and renewable energy being able to make up for only part of that energy a truly sustainable long term population is probably about two-thirds of our current population which would be about 400,000. About 95% or more of everything we consume, including our food, comes from outside of Vermont and that is not sustainable in the long term. We have to remember we live on a finite planet. and the human population can’t grow forever.

  • The great thing about Vermont is that we have access to Vermont leaders who can see and understand the issues that are important to their community and people they serve. There are a lot of great people like Vince Illuzzi and organizations like the Sierra Club who want to preserve Vermont for future generations. The Abenaki are the original stewards of this land and whether you are Abenaki or just concerned about the land, it is great to see that preservation is important to people in this State. This is the most important thing to remember. We call all work together for the bright future for all of us…

    • eric lanou

      to bad the indians and the sierra club did not pay the land owner what they agreed to and screwed the land owner out of $15,000.00