What’s best for the forest? Possible plan to cut old trees in Green Mountains sparks debate.

Green Mountain National Forest 2
The Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. USDA photo

Rachel Elliott is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

A possible plan to cut down trees on nearly 11,000 acres of the Green Mountain National Forest is heightening tension between climate advocates and federal officials who claim the logging would help ecosystems.

The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t yet made a formal proposal, but in preliminary documents for the project — called the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project — officials suggest that between 4,720 and 10,900 acres of trees in the forest could be subject to logging.

That would add to around 40,000 acres — about 10% of the forest — already approved for timber operations in the next few years.

The project focuses on about 32,250 acres of the more than 400,000-acre forest that stretch across Addison, Rutland and Windsor counties, mostly around the town of Chittenden. Removing the trees would be a matter of balancing out the ecosystem, officials say. Eighty-five percent of trees in the area available for logging are more than 80 years old.

That’s a problem, officials say, because many species of wildlife depend on habitats that come only from young or regrowing forest environments. Increasing the amount of younger forest, for example, would create more areas for deer to seek shelter in the winter. So the Forest Service is considering cutting down older trees, leaving space for new ones to grow in.

But the agency’s goals have drawn criticism from activist groups focused on forest conservation and climate change, who say that getting rid of old-growth forest would hurt an important, natural way to combat carbon emissions.

The project is one of the 10 worst logging projects in federal forests in terms of its contribution to climate change, said Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees, a group that pushes for policies to protect and restore New England's native forests. Porter said the high percentage of old trees in the project area play a key role in sucking excess carbon out of the atmosphere.

“We want to make sure that decision-makers know that the public cares, that we're watching and, if they don't start changing the way that they take public input into account (and) changing the plans for our public lands, that the pressure is just going to keep mounting,” Porter said.

The group organized a protest against the possible logging on Nov. 12 outside the Forest Service ranger station in Rochester, which drew more than 100 people, with speakers expressing fears for the forest and anger at the Forest Service for, in their view, ignoring their concerns.

“I have lived in Vermont since I was 6 years old, and it feels a lot like a place that is away from the rest of the problems of the country,” said Viggo Holzhammer, a high school student attending the rally. “It's very much a safe haven. But we have … been slowly experiencing the effects of everything happening in the country. ... No place is safe, no matter how green it presents itself.”

The event was the first in a national week of action by advocacy groups across the country as delegates from more than 195 countries met for the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt last month.

Officials with the Forest Service, though, said the project aims in part to support efforts to help ecosystems and landowners better adapt to climate change and forest management.

“The agency’s top priority is to maintain and improve the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of current and future generations, including the climate crisis,” spokesperson Wade Muehlhof said. “Forest management focuses on managing vegetation, restoring ecosystems, reducing hazards and maintaining forest health. Old-growth and mature forests are key components to healthy ecosystems.”

Muehlhof said that commercial timber operations happen in less than 0.3% of the Green Mountain National Forest each year. When trees there are cut down, workers sometimes use techniques intended to increase habitat for animals and accelerate the development of mature and old forest characteristics — helping older trees in forests grow even older, undisturbed.

The activist group wants to get a federal rule passed to require the Forest Service not to log trees in mature and old-growth forests. Porter claimed that, by cutting in these areas, the service is “flouting” several federal executive orders issued this year aimed at combating climate change. 

Muehlhof denied that the Forest Service has gone against an April executive order from President Joe Biden that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which oversees the service — to “conserve America’s mature and old growth forests on federal lands” and “deploy climate-smart forestry practices … to improve the resilience of our lands, waters, wildlife and communities in the face of … arising from climate impacts,” among other things.

Muehlhof did not address a question about whether the Forest Service had acted out of step with an earlier January order covering many of the same points.

After the November rally, a group of protesters drove a few miles down the road to a recently clear-cut area of the forest to see what the effects of the proposed project might look like. They gathered together at the top of a barren hill tangled with branches and weeds in the middle of otherwise untouched forest. The mood was quiet and solemn, unlike the passionate speeches given less than an hour before.

Anita Pomerance, 88, stopped to count the exposed tree rings on a stump that she determined to be nearly 100 years old. 

“The latest news that it’s nine years, rather than 20, before we reach an irreversible point (in climate change), that’s a terrifying thought,” Pomerance said. “I thought it’s not going to be in my lifetime, but now it is going to be in my lifetime. ... That’s discouraging to know.”

When and if the Forest Service releases a proposal to log parts of the project area, people will be able to submit public comments on the plan. So far officials have emphasized that nothing is set in stone.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the type of logging the U.S. Forest Service has considered for 11,000 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest.

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