A Montgomery-based organization wants to conserve more than 20,000 acres of forest in northwest Vermont by 2030, helping local communities protect and leverage the region’s natural resources — and ultimately fight the effects of climate change.
Cold Hollow to Canada last month released its 2021-2025 strategic plan, which outlines goals for forest stewardship, the protection of wildlife movement and sustainable land use planning across seven towns in Franklin and Lamoille counties.
Together, these municipalities — Fletcher, Waterville and Belvidere in the south, up to Bakersfield, Enosburgh, Montgomery and Richford on the Canadian border — contain the Cold Hollow Mountains, which are part of the Green Mountain ridge line.
This region also is a critical linkage within the roughly 80 million acres of the greater Northern Forest, said Charlie Hancock, a co-founder of Cold Hollow to Canada.
The Northern Forest, which stretches from Massachusetts to southeastern Canada, is said to be the largest intact temperate forest in the world. It contains some 470 vertebrate species and 2,700 plant species, as well as 5 million people.
A key issue for Cold Hollow to Canada is forest fragmentation, Hancock said, which happens when large patches of forest get separated into smaller patches by roads, agriculture or other types of development.
This breaks up the habitats and migration patterns relied on by wildlife, and can harm the entire ecosystem, he said. Healthy forests are critical for humans: They support industries such as logging and sugaring and pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
“All of these pressures are sitting out there,” Hancock said. “We’re looking at them and saying, ‘OK, so how do we set ourselves up for success?’”
‘Keep the forest whole’
Hancock, who also chairs the Montgomery Selectboard, said land sales in town are booming. He noted that people often move to the Cold Hollow region, and other rural parts of Vermont, dreaming of a “bucolic” life.
That’s a great economic stimulus — but new development should not harm the landscapes that draw people there in the first place, or the forest-based economy that has long been established, he said.
Cold Hollow to Canada builds on the guidance of Act 171, Hancock said, which requires municipalities to identify areas that are important forest blocks and wildlife habitat connectors, and to plan for development that minimizes forest fragmentation.
For instance, the organization has worked with local governments to update their zoning bylaws, he said, and trained individual landowners on ways to better manage their forests through collaborative meetings of its Woodlots Program.
Conservation and rural economic development must be “coupled together” for both to succeed, Hancock said. This will help keep forest ownership economically viable, he noted, as well as attractive to young people in the region today.
“I often think about the kids that are in the Montgomery Elementary School,” he said. “What are the things we can do now to ensure that when they’re our age, that they still want to live here — they still can live here?”
One challenge in the Cold Hollow region is that the average land parcel is smaller than in other parts of the state, such as the Northeast Kingdom, Hancock said. This means from the outset, local solutions have to involve many different stakeholders.
For instance, Cold Hollow to Canada helped create the country’s first aggregated carbon market, he said — which enables a group of landowners to receive and sell carbon offset credits for their improved forest management practices.
Last year, Amazon said it would buy $2.5 million worth of carbon credits generated through the program, according to Cold Hollow to Canada’s website.
“They’re still harvesting timber, but they’re managing their properties to maintain higher levels of carbon stocking,” he said, referring to how trees capture and store carbon. “It’s also bringing in an additional revenue stream to these landowners.”
Nancy Patch, a co-founder of Cold Hollow to Canada, said people moving to the region could be considered climate refugees. Unlike other parts of the country, she said, the area has lots of water and does not have to contend with sea level rise or wildfires.
Still, issues with droughts, forest regeneration and invasive species are growing, and all “are exacerbated by climate change,” she said. The region’s forests are relatively young, she said — but need to be managed so they are as resilient as older forests.
“We want to keep the forest whole,” Patch said. “And we are facing a time period in our lives where climate change and population growth is threatening that integrity.”
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