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Toward Greener Forests

David Brynn '76 G'91

photo by Cheryl Dorschner

When you first meet forester David Brynn ’76 G’91 you’re more likely to think of Paul Newman than Paul Bunyan. Tall, gray at the temples, and easy to smile, Brynn has an affable grace that would serve him on a movie set — but he has more important work to do in the forests of Vermont.

“Forestry is not just timber management,” he says, standing in the rain at the University of Vermont’s research forest in Jericho. Here, on 500 acres, Brynn has begun his new work as director of the Green Forestry Education Initiative, part of an effort by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources to re-imagine — even revolutionize — the purpose of forestry education.
“Forestry should be a cycle that returns health to forests and value to their stewards,” he says. Then he points to an unassuming cinderblock shed. “That building, and this forest, will be a seedbed for teaching this idea.”

Brynn’s own education as a gentle revolutionary came from the woodlots and skidyards of Vermont. Since 1976, when he completed his UVM degree in forest management, Brynn has worked for the state as a forester, including his most recent post as the Addison County forester.

“I had the best job in the state,” he says, stepping inside his new classroom, “but I saw the hard realities of Vermont’s forest industry.” Brynn looks across the battered hardwood floor toward the white pines beyond and begins to describe what he saw: forests “high graded,” all their most vigorous trees cut; small-scale private landowners — who own 63% of Vermont forests — receiving stumpage checks that didn’t meet their tax bill; mills and out-of-state buyers capturing most of the profit-per-tree in finished products; state education efforts focused on improving timber quality, but little investment in programs to help stewards succeed in the marketplace.

So he decided to do something to help. In 1995, he founded Vermont Family Forests, a nonprofit organization that today is brimming with programs dedicated to conserving forest health, including affordable “green certification” to help small landowners get a higher price for logs harvested in an ecologically sound way; a “community forest” in Monkton where VFF and the Vermont Land Trust hold the development rights allowing lower-income investors to own a share of a forest, whether for firewood or camping; and a Family Forest brand that can boost the bottom line for families by collectively marketing premium products like flooring and maple syrup.

Now Brynn is bringing the lesson of his experiences — that a healthy forest and a healthy forest economy depend on each other — to a new generation of foresters.

“UVM is extraordinarily lucky,” says Brynn’s friend, the writer Bill McKibben. “It’s as if years ago they had hired Bob Rodale to start a program on organic farming. David Brynn is the most innovative forester in America.”

—Joshua Brown