Editor’s note: This article is by Candace Page, a freelance journalist in Burlington. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
BOLTON – Mike DeBonis walked with a woodsman’s easy strides through a jungly floodplain forest of red maple and scrawny elms bordering the future path of the Long Trail by the Winooski River.
“Some folks who came down here said to me, ‘This is a junk forest,’” he recalled. “I said no, it’s a cool forest, a diverse forest, a forest that has adapted to floods.”
DeBonis, 43, knows what he’s saying. He’s a Yale-trained forester with a deep knowledge of Vermont’s woods and mountains, gleaned as a boy growing up in Middlebury with a forester father.
Forestry isn’t the first skill one would associate with his new job as executive director of the 104-year-old Green Mountain Club. As protector of the country’s oldest long-distance hiking path, Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail, the club is better known for conserving land, building trails and teaching outdoor skills than for managing woodlots.
But like that floodplain forest, the club is adapting to changed – sometimes difficult – circumstances. DeBonis is just what the club was looking for, President Jean Haigh said.
Forest management requires not just knowledge of timber-cutting, DeBonis said, but the ability to manage relationships with landowners and communities, and to communicate with the public about the ecological, economic and social values of forests.
Those are the sorts of abilities the club sought in its new director.
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“We’re at a big turning point,” Haigh said. For many years, the club has been focused on major physical and financial projects, including the $10-million campaign to permanently protect 60 miles of the Long Trail that crossed private land.
Those projects are largely completed. The club has conserved all but six miles of the trail. It has carried out a $1.75-million rebuilding of its headquarters after a 2003 fire and solved the 100-year-old problem of a permanent Winooski River crossing, a $2.3-million undertaking.
“Now the question is, how do we sustain our work?” Haigh asked earlier this month. “That’s the transition we’re in.”
The current challenges facing the club aren’t as visible or compelling to outsiders as protecting large tracts of wild land or building a new suspension footbridge over the Winooski River.
Instead, the club must focus on day-to-day stewardship of the trail and the 24,000 acres that have been protected (most of it now in state or federal ownership, with the club holding protective easements).
How is that land best managed? How can other uses of club-conserved land – timber-cutting, energy development, sugarmaking – be carried out in ways that don’t damage hikers’ enjoyment of the Long Trail?
And where will the money come from to do those jobs, as well as to maintain hundreds of miles of hiking trails, dozens of bridges and more than 70 cabins, shelters and camping areas?
The days when the club received a yearly state grant of $50,000 for its Long Trail work are over. Federal funding for trail crews has shrunk.
The club has tightened its belt, reduced its staff by one position and is in good financial condition with a balanced $2 million budget. Haigh worries about the future, though, because raising funds for ongoing operations and stewardship is a less “sexy” cause and always a challenge, she sighed.
Managing those challenges will be DeBonis’ job. And forestry, it turns out, is the least of the reasons he was the club’s choice from among 80 applicants.
He’s a man with bright brown eyes and an outdoorsman’s build, slim and wiry. He grew up hiking the mountains around Lake Dunmore and through-hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail as a 23-year-old.
But it was as his outdoor job as a forester, he said, that taught him the indoor skills needed to manage an organization.
“Being a forester is more than just about determining which trees to cut,” he said. “It’s about communicating, being part of a community, working with diverse groups to find common ground.”
After several years as a state forester working with communities in Maine, DeBonis joined the New Mexico-based Forest Guild, a national group that promotes sustainable, ecologically sensitive forestry. DeBonis was promoted to be the group’s executive director in 2008, just as the recession hit.
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“Mike did a great job navigating the hard times,” said Rick Morrill, a Maine forester and chairman of the Forest Guild board. That involved downsizing the staff, finding new sources of funds and strategic thinking about the group’s direction.
“It took a variety of approaches, and Mike was the mastermind of that,” Morrill said.
DeBonis said he and his wife, Jennifer, had always hoped to return to Vermont, but in the more distant future. Then his father saw the Green Mountain Club advertisement, and DeBonis decided he couldn’t pass up the chance.
“This was not a planned move,” he said drily.
One of DeBonis’ first jobs is overseeing completion of the club’s Winooski footbridge for a planned October opening. Next summer, the club will cut new routes north from Camels Hump and south from Bolton Mountain to the crossing.
The club will continue to tackle other trail projects, but when DeBonis talks about the big jobs ahead it’s the word “stewardship” that appears most frequently.
“Traditionally that meant caring the trail. As a forester, I take a broader perspective,” he said. “Stewardship includes biodiversity, sustainable forest management, attention to the local economy. We have to think not just about land but community and people.”
“The Long Trail is part of the fabric of Vermont. It’s so important socially and economically, we’d sell ourselves short if we just looked on the Long Trail as a footpath,” he said.
That means working with multiple partners, he said, from adjoining private landowners to state foresters to selectboards. The club is committed to multiple uses of the land it owns or holds easements on, but wants to minimize impacts that would tarnish a hiker’s experience of the trail.
A good example, he said, is the recent growth of maple sugaring operations, which can string miles of tubing through forests crossed by the trail.
“I never envisioned when I was a kid there would be a sugarbush with 50,000 taps,” he said. “This industrial-scale sugaring requires extensive infrastructure. We have to ask, what is the impact on the trail experience, but also do we want to manage the forest for a single species of tree? What is the impact on biodiversity and wildlife?”
An equally big challenge, he said, is to find ways to encourage – to steward – a new generation of hikers and draw them to membership, activity and leadership in the club.
The Long Trail itself helps that recruitment, he said, citing his own vivid childhood memory of an expedition to explore a beaver dam on Mount Horrid in Brandon.
He recalled a solo hike last month, when he climbed Mount Abraham on a sunny Sunday. On top, he encountered a grandfather with his granddaughter.
“I don’t know if the little girl will remember which mountain it was, but you could tell from the joy in her eyes, she will remember that hike,” he said. “She has that connection with the mountains that will stay with her.”
Candace Page is a freelance journalist in Burlington.