David Brynn: Toward a resilient Vermont forest-based economy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by David Brynn, a conservation forester for Vermont Family Forests.

The mountains of Vermont have been blanketed by verdant forests for thousands of years. Native Americans hunted, tended and called home these ecologically rich forests when the great lake to our west flowed south and when whales swam in its salty waters. It has long been a place where trees love to grow large, tall and straight. When Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1609 he saw verdant, pulsatingly green, forest-covered mountains and exclaimed “Voila! Verde Monts!” Not just green mountains but verdant ones! One can just imagine the excitement he felt!

By 1850 Vermont had become the lumber capital of the world for a few years and all but 20 percent of Vermont’s forests had been converted to farms and villages. Following the Civil War and collapse of the sheep industry, many ambitious and/or desperate Vermonters headed west for even better soils and growing conditions.

Vermont’s forests returned quickly – the first ones were dominated by early- and mid-successional species such as aspen and pine. Another forest industry sprang up quickly to harvest that new forest. Just south of where we live, the east-west road was called “Plank” after the log corduroy found in wet places. The road south of that was called “Pine,” perhaps for the box shop that prospered there for a while.

Today Vermont, due largely to our well-watered, productive-but-not-too-productive soils, is now 78 percent forested. Forests still love to grow here and we still hunt, fish, recreate and make our livelihoods from and in them. Ecologists call that capacity of our forests for self-renewal “resilience.” We are a resilient people in large measure due to the forests that still want to grow here.

In 2013 the North East State Foresters Association published its periodic report entitled “The Economic Importance of Vermont’s Forest-Based Economy.” Their preceding report was titled “The Economic Importance and Wood Flows from Vermont’s Forests, 2007.” Even in those six short years, Vermont’s forests had witnessed dramatic economic, ecological and social changes including the Great Recession, Tropical Storm Irene, and a new breed of Vermonters known as localvores.

As early as 1990, it was recognized that in order for Vermont’s forest economy to be sustainable it had to be three things concurrently: 1. economically feasible; 2. ecologically viable; and 3. socially desirable. Forestry was no longer primarily about promoting strong abundant reproduction; protecting forests from fire, insects, and thieves; and growing high quality trees ripe and ready for the axe as Gifford Pinchot’s “Practical Forestry” had suggested. These elements were still important, but by then forestry had also been inspired by Aldo Leopold’s “ecological conscience,” and many in the human community realized that membership ought to be extended to the other species found in forest communities. This approach to the forest was called “ecosystem management.” It was an inclusive term because tree huggers heard “ecosystem” and tree fellers heard “management.”

In 2014, it is commonly recognized that Vermont’s forest economy must be all of these things in order to be sustainable. But our economy must also be able to respond quickly and well to unanticipated and rapid change. In short it has to be complex and resilient, just like the forest ecosystems upon which it depends. Vermont’s forest-based economy must become even more collaborative and holistic and less competitive and linear. At each intersection we must strive for win-win-win relationships among the economic, ecological and social interests that dwell there. But what on earth does that all mean?

Let’s take a look at where we were in 2011 when most of the data for the NESFA were gathered. In that year, Vermont’s forest-based manufacturing sector and forest-based recreation sector contributed $3.4 billion to the Vermont economy and provided 1,500 full-time jobs across the landscape. The entire contribution of forest-based manufacturing was $1.5 billion, or 43 percent, of Vermont’s forest-based economy and 10,555 (51 percent) of the full-time forest-based jobs. Forest-based recreation contributed $1.9 billion (57 percent) and created 10,050 (49 percent) of the jobs. For the first time ever, forest-based recreation trumped forest-based manufacturing in Vermont’s “working” forest landscape. Some were shocked. Others saw opportunity.

In the forest-based manufacturing sector, forestry, logging and trucking accounted for $45 million (1.3 percent of the dollars) and 875 (4.2 percent) of the jobs in Vermont’s forest-based economy. Impressive as these figures were, NESFA recognized that the logging business sector was aging, getting less populated, and using much larger and more expensive harvesting equipment. By 2011, nearly two-thirds of the timber harvest in the Northern Forest was of the cut-to-length or whole-tree harvesting variety.

Primary manufacturing in the forest-based economy involves businesses that convert logs into higher value products such as veneer and lumber. In 2011, 2,327 workers were employed in Vermont’s primary manufacturing sector of the forest-based economy. The number of workers was down 20 percent from what it had been in 1997, but volume production had remained constant. Annual payroll was at $67 million down from a peak of $91 million in 2000.

Although Vermont’s forest-based economy remains diverse and productive economically, ecologically and socially, there are very serious challenges that must be faced head-on in order to conserve our resilient, working and rewilding, forested landscape.


Secondary manufacturing is another essential element in Vermont’s forest-based manufacturing sector. Without it, Vermont would become a colony for the export of forest products that have much value left to be added and jobs to be created elsewhere. In 2011 payroll in the secondary manufacturing sector was at $49 million, with annual shipments of secondary wood products valued at $143 million.

Wood energy had grown into another important element of Vermont’s forest-based manufacturing sector. Many Vermonters once again heated their homes with chunk wood and pellets. Seventy-five commercial facilities used wood chips or pellets. All combined, about 1.8 million green tons or 900,000 cords were used for wood energy. The harvesting associated with wood energy is most often highly mechanized and much safer for the logging community. However, the percentage and volume of wood that is extracted is much higher than conventional operations, raising concerns about site productivity and soil erosion as well as other forest functions, values and services.

The Christmas tree and maple syrup sectors of Vermont’s forest-based manufacturing sector provided 500 full-time jobs to Vermonters in 2012 while contributing $2.8 million and $26 million to Vermont’s economy respectively. In 2012 Vermont remained the leading producer of maple syrup in the U.S. by volume (and quality, of course!). Interestingly Vermont’s maple syrup manufacturing sector is considered agricultural by some, but we in the forest-based economy sector consider it to be one of our highest quality forest products and its marketing to be one of our most outstanding achievements. There are most definitely lessons that can be learned here for application in other sectors of Vermont’s forest-based economy.

Slowly but surely, Vermont’s forest-based recreation and tourism sector has grown into an economic powerhouse in its own right. The economic contributions of the forest-based recreation sector outpaced the forest-based manufacturing sector for the first time in 2011. An essential point to recognize here is that competition between the manufacturing and recreation sectors is literally counter-productive. We must focus on opportunities for collaboration and mutually beneficial enterprises. For example, fall foliage viewing accounted for 48 percent of the total forest-based recreation sales followed by downhill skiing, hunting, wildlife watching, camping, snowmobiling, hiking, and cross-country skiing. ALL of these activities are compatible if not enhanced with carefully orchestrated woodland stewardship in many settings and ownership types.

Last but not least is the silent yet steady partner of Vermont’s forest-based economy: forest ecosystem services. Healthy forests can and often do sequester more carbon, produce the highest quality waters, AND provide the most diverse habitats of any land uses. Period. The economic value of forest-based ecosystem services is often debated, but their ecological and social values are not. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is pressing to have forest ecosystem services considered as forest products, just as non-wood and wood products are.

Not only are Vermont’s forest economy and ecology diverse, the ownership of Vermont’s forests is as well. Seventy-eight percent of Vermont is covered by forest. Of that forestland base, fully 80 percent is held by family or individually owned non-industrial private forestland owners or NIPFs. (Some refer to them – or at least some of them — as “family forests,” but that is a story for another day!) About 19 percent of Vermont’s forests are publicly held. Only 1 percent of Vermont’s forests are “industrial.”

To add to the complexity of Vermont’s forest ownership a bit further, many of Vermont’s forests have conservation easements placed on them. Ecologically and economically, a forest includes soil, water, plants and animals, and the interactions among and between them. Legally, forests involve “a bundle of rights,” including development, water, and hunting rights to name a few.

In Vermont, the air, flowing waters and most lakes and wild animals are commonly held resources of all of the people of Vermont. The state often serves as the trustee. However, in “Think Like A Commoner” (New Society Publishers 2014), David Bollier reminds us that “The Commons … is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage needed resources. There is no commons without communing — the social practices and norms that help a community manage a resource for collective benefit.”

Although Vermont’s forest-based economy remains diverse and productive economically, ecologically and socially, there are very serious challenges that must be faced head-on in order to conserve our resilient, working and rewilding, forested landscape. The NESFA listed several of these issues including: forestland being removed from active management; climate change; loss of markets; reduced federal and state subsidies; adverse tax policies; and travel costs, to name a few. There are many others.

To address these and other complex issues successfully, Vermont’s forest-based economy requires a comprehensive, collaborative and creative planning process. It is a process that must seek solutions that are at once:

• Economically feasible,
• Socially desirable, and
• Ecologically viable over time.

It is a process that must recognize all of the varieties of forest ownership, investment, and holding including but not limited to:

• Privately held,
• Publicly held, and
• Commonly held forest resources.

And it is a process that will require an analysis involving all seven of the criteria listed in the Montreal Process including:

• Conservation of biological diversity;
• Maintenance of productive capacity of forest ecosystems:
• Maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality;
• Conservation and maintenance of soil and water resources;
• Maintenance of forest contribution to global carbon cycles;
• Maintenance and enhancement of long-term socio-economic benefits; and
• Legal, institutional, and economic framework for forest conservation and sustainable (resilient!) management.

And perhaps most importantly — it is a process that must actively involve and engage all stakeholders in an open dialogue that seeks win-win-win solutions at every intersection.

This is a challenging, if not daunting, task. However, it is one that must be undertaken because of the complexity, diversity and enormity of Vermont’s forest-based economy. Done well, this process will be a legacy of which we Vermonters will be proud and which others will follow. It is a process that will result in a holistic greenprint for the path forward into a rapidly changing and evolving future.

Let’s get on with it!

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  • Beautifully put, David. I suspect I’ll be quoting you in public very soon!

  • James Maroney

    Elegant and comprehensive. David reduces this “problem” to digestible bites!

  • Kim Fried

    David a great article. Thank you. I can only hope that the Governor and the ANR read it again and again. What these folks are doing to destroy our forests and wildlife with the out of state, out of country industrial wind ridge line developments will very quickly destroy Vermonts most prized possession-our forests and wildlife. What they are doing is the exact opposite of a collaborative effort to keep our state the most beautiful and economically viable in the nation.

  • Joanna Cummings

    Thank you, thank you, David, for this thoughtful and timely article! I really appreciated that you included mention of the “Commons”, a principle that we all need to be reminded of. However I would put forest ecosystem services as the number one consideration of our forest economy. When these services are compromised (retention of groundwater, reduction of runoff into streams and lakes, generation of oxygen, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, etc.) none of the other economic services would be possible. Forest and habitat fragmentation is also one of the most serious challenges that needs to be addressed.

  • Bruce Post

    David, given your reference to the deforestation of Vermont in the 19th century, readers might be interested in this excerpt from a speech George Perkins Marsh made to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County in 1847, a full seventeen years before he published his notable Man and Nature:

    “The suddenness and violence of our freshets increases in proportion as the soil is cleared; bridges are washed away, meadows swept of their crops and fences, and covered with barren sand, or themselves abraded by the fury of the current, and there is reason to fear that the valleys of many of our streams will soon be converted from smiling meadows into broad wastes of shingle and gravel and pebbles, deserts in summer, and seas in autumn and spring. The changes, which these causes have wrought in the physical geography of Vermont, within a single generation, are too striking to have escaped the attention of any observing person, and every middle-aged man, who revisits his birthplace after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theatre of his youthful toils and pleasures.”

    Such was the utter havoc Vermonters visited upon on our hills and the devastating results.

    At the time, Marsh was Vermont’s U.S. Representative in Congress. I consider that ironic because today too many of our political representatives – and maybe most of us – practice an easy conservation that does not overtly threaten the dominant economic model or our personal comfort. One hundred years after Marsh made his speech, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory. On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.”

    Quite a bit of good environmental legislation has come about since Leopold wrote those words in 1947, but I wonder if “we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.”

    • It was so good to meet you today at David Bollier’s talk “Think Like a Commoner”. Thanks so much for participating.

      Thanks again for sharing Lewis Stilwell’s “Migration From Vermont”. One of the most important books I have read on the conquest of Vermont’s aboriginal forests.

      Good luck with your important work. There is so much to be done in narrowing the gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

  • A great article and great comments, too. There are too many govt policy and regulatory obstacles to a vibrant VT forest economy. If the petroleum industry subsidies were reduced at all, that would give it a chance to thrive.

  • Kudos to David Brynn for articulating the challenges of today’s forest economy in Vermont. It’s exciting to see this kind of vibrant energy and enthusiasm. We also have the Vermont Working Lands initiative and many organizations such as the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association VWMA beating the same drum. Woohoo… things are starting to happen!

  • Stephen Barner

    I am very concerned about the effects of the scale of logging, and the impacts this has on Vermont forests. Check out the satellite views at online mapping sites and look at the area between West Braintree and Granville and north along this ridgeline. Then check out the huge, almost denuded areas east of Moretown. It’s difficult to see how his type of logging is ecologically benign, and I suspect that this timber is being shipped lagely out of state, with little or no economic benefit to Vermonters. We may not be able to do much about this type of activity when it takes place in privately held forests, but we darned well better be sure it doesn’t ever happen on publically held or protected forests.

  • This is a great article about the diverse economically sustainable uses of our wonderful Vermont forests! However, there is one usage of them that is missing; green burial.
    Many Vermonters now would like to have their own discarded bodies at death, return to the soil. We need to promote legislation that encourages green burials in perpetually conserved and designated areas.

  • Vermonters are very fortunate to have VTDigger as a place where we can explore our landscape together. Thank you Anne and all of the other great VTDigger people!

    I noticed two errors in my essay. In 2011 Vermont’s forest-based economy included 20,600 full time equivalent jobs not 1,500.

    Also David Bollier wrote that “The Commons” requires “commoning” not “communing”.

    The comments are very much appreciated. In response:

    Pieter Kropotkin’s book “Mutual Aid” makes clear the importance of mutualism in natural communities as well as human ones. Vermont understands it too: “Freedom AND Unity”.

    I agree completely that we need to re-learn how to cooperate more in finding win-win-win solutions if we are to address the daunting challenges that face us.

    Yes, The Commons IS essential. Aristotle recognized three types of things or interests: Res publicae – publicly-held things; Res privatae – privately-held things; and Res -communes – commonly-held things. We Vermonters need to re-awaken our awareness of and responsibility for The Commons if we are to conserve the health of our forests. The Market-State has not done this well largely because our economic system has been allowed to externalize many of the key ecological functions and values of The Commons. This flaw is fatal for forested ecosystems in the long run.

    Yes, I agree that ecology is the foundation of economy and community. Justin Brande put it this way: “Without ecology there is no economy.” Justin was absolutely correct!

    George Perkins Marsh recognized that early forest settlement and exploitation changed Vermont’s forests from sponges to ditches. We have an enormous amount of work to get Vermont’s forest hydrology back in order. This means recognizing that CLEAN WATER is “the premier forest product” as John Gordon, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, once said. Water should be at the top of our forest conservation agenda. It should be recognized as such in our Current Use Program. Clean water should be the highest priority in our forest conservation cost-share programs.

    Forest science has shown that whole-tree harvesting is not ecologically benign. We must be cautious in its application.

    I also agree that natural forest returning grounds (i.e. green burial) should be made more available across Vermont. Done thoughtfully and ecologically, our culture and our forests would be enriched by it.

    I love Vermont. I think we must do a better job of giving back to this forested place. We must stop rushing to judgment and myth and begin to explore the potential for a forest-based economy that is at once ecologically sustainable, socially desirable, and economically feasible.

    This is possible though daunting. It is a task that needs all of us working and rewilding together.