photo by Sally
communities and wildlife of the Northern Forest
a 26-million acre canopy of trees arcing through the
far Northeast face sprawl, globalization, and environmental
pressures. UVM researchers and graduates are seeking
innovative ways to protect the people and places of a wild
but fragile region.
see the Northern Forest, climb to the top of Mount Mansfield on a fine
day. Leave the last brave spruces and continue on above treeline, hopping
from rock to rock over lichen and sedge until you stand on the blunt summit,
in the wind. Here you can see the tallest peaks in three states. To the
west stands Mount Marcy, the wild high point of New York State, nestled
in the Adirondack High Peaks. Far to the east rises the Presidential Range
and New Hampshires famed Mount Washington. Now, with one gust of
the imagination, set aloft 200 miles northeast to another state high point,
Mount Katahdin in central Maine. Between the mountainsin vast rolling
waves the view is trees, trees, trees.
Marcy, Mansfield, Washington, Katahdin connect the dots to trace
the rocky spine through the center of the 26-million-acre Northern Forest.
Optimistic observers call this region the largest stretch of intact forest
east of the Mississippi, a twiggy ghost that rose from the stubble of
abandoned farms and rapacious clearcuts. Robert Frosts verse
house that is no more a house, /But only a belilaced cellar hole,
/Now slowly closing like a dent in doughput poetry to history:
in 1850 Vermont was 75 percent farmland, today it is more than 75 percent
not all is well in the woods.
While the story of New England in the 20th century may be told as the
resurrection of the Northern Forest, the story in the 21st may be one
of the forests slow demise. A search of regional newspaper articles
from the last decade turns up culprits like cut-and-run logging
returns, Asian long-horned beetle infects New York hardwoods,
hemlock woolly adelgid approaches, acid rain damages
spruce, vacation houses crowd once quiet lakeshore,
huge timberland to the highest bidder. Will the burgeoning
trees fall to a new generation of threats?
This chapter is not yet written. Across the region, landowners, scientists,
and small communities and businesses are looking for ways to conserve
biodiversity and keep the forest healthy while at the same time providing
opportunities to continue timber harvests and maintain rural ways of life.
A vanguard of University of Vermont researchers and graduates, many supported
by the Northeastern States Research Cooperative, a federal program co-administered
at UVM, is determined to address these issues. Some of their innovative
ideas are now taking root.
photo by Joshua Brown
For his part, Bill Keeton, an assistant professor of natural resources,
pushes trees over and leaves some of them to rot. Or, more accurately,
on a few frozen days last February, Keeton had loggers topple them with
the huge mechanical pincers of a machine called a tree shear. As the trees
fell, they ripped up a great wad of the forest floor.
Eighteen months later, Keeton stands next to one of these tip-ups
in the Mount Mansfield State Forest and points to a hefty sugar maple
nearby. Were testing a new forestry system to promote old
forest characteristics, he says. By pushing over or harvesting
a few surrounding trees, the biggest, healthiest ones like this
beauty are given more room to grow. Overhead, the maples
whole crown flames green in the sunlight.
around, Keeton says, waving his arm down the woody slope. New
England has plenty of young and middle-aged forests that originated from
19th and early 20th-century land use. Whats missing? Forests with
the architectural complexity of old growth.
He walks to the base of the tipped-over tree, and traces his finger down
the vertical wall of roots and rocks. See all this elderberry dangling
from the top? This disturbed soil is being recolonized already.
He pauses at a hole and looks down. Heres a little cavity,
maybe a winter wren nest. They love these root wads. He kneels in
the pit below, now filled with muddy leaves. This is an amazing
vernal pool and this spring it was teeming with wood frog and salamander
The trees he had toppled and left were not wasted; theyre on their
way to becoming part of the messy forest floor that is a signature of
many old-growth stands. The voice of Jerry Franklin, a pioneer in old-growth
forest science, seems to echo in the branches, a trees second
life begins when it dies. For many years, conventional forestry
plans often removed the large trees and dead snags that many animals need,
simplifying the multi-layered, downright ragged architecture of old forests.
Keeton wants to see if harvesting some small and mid-sized trees in a
pattern that imitates the way natural disturbances would knock over trees
will build old-growth structure into the post-harvest forest and
still allow a landowner to make a living. After all, 85 percent of the
Northern Forest is privately owned, often by individuals who want to conserve
their land, but also need money. Promoting old-growth structure has ecological
benefits, also. It improves carbon storage, which reduces greenhouse-gas
concentrations, helps forests near streams function better (which, in
turn, helps wetlands), and offers better habitat for some wildlife. If
Keeton is right, this approach to logging could offer landowners an alternative
that, in combination with other tactics, could improve the health of thousands
He is quick to distinguish his never-before-tried forestry methods from
the deep, mossy complexity of a real old-growth forest. Nevertheless,
the group of researchers he works with think that use of their technique
for example, in forested land surrounding an existing nature preserve
can accelerate the restoration rate of the genuine article by 50
percent. This technique is not going to cure all the problems in
the forest, he says, quietly tapping on a beech blistered with bark
disease, we need lots of diverse efforts and new ideas at many scales.
Fostering a broad range of initiatives and ideas is the broad goal of
the Northeastern States Research Cooperative, a federal program that supports
cross-disciplinary research on the forest through a competitive grant
program. Without this funding, many efforts like Keetons would not
happen. The cooperative has given more than $2.5 million in grants since
2002, often to UVM researchers including Austin Troy, one of a
growing group in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources
who study the Northern Forest.
Troy, an assistant professor who specializes in land-use planning and
spatial analysis, sees a fast-moving storm of pavement, subdivisions,
and big box stores all heading north. Lots of people claim,
The forest is back, just a hundred years ago this was all pasture.
And, if tree cover is the only measure, theyre right, he says.
But how much of the forest is ecologically functional? How many
houses and roads can we scatter across the landscape before the Northern
Forest is just trees and no longer a forest?
Not too many more it would seem. Itself home to more than one million
people, the Northern Forest forms a treed dome along the northern borders
of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, an easy drive away from
the 70 million residents of the Boston/New York/Washington, D.C. megalopolis.
Many of these people would love to have a little house in the woods.
Sprawl is the biggest threat, Troy says. He launches a computer
simulation projecting what the landscape might look like if current trends
continue; the screen is not pretty. Since 1998, more than six million
acres of the Northern Forest have changed hands as a string of paper mills
and sawmills closed and multinational corporations dumped their holdings.
Some of the sales have been from one timber company to another, and some
to hastily assembled coalitions of conservation groups, but a rising number
of purchases have been rung up by developers. The transformation of forestland
into house lots and shopping malls is raising eyebrows, real estate prices,
and alarm. These sales are more than a change in who holds the deed, they
point to a change in the identity of a whole region.
The daunting truth is that to save the Northern Forest we will have to
save the cities or at least make them more livable and compact.
As Troy says, you grow up or you grow out, a city becomes
denser or it sprawls. Troys simulations let him predict the extent
of new development in ten years under current policies, or alter those
scenarios (with a new highway, say, or growth-boundary regulations) and
see how land use changes. These various possibilities for the forests
future might be of real interest to county commissioners and town planners
and others dealing with sprawl. Similar technology also helps conservation
planners precisely target the most crucial parts of the forest for preservation.
photo by Sally McCay
do not have enough reserve land protected from development and extractive
uses, says Professor David Capen, a colleague of Troys and
director of UVMs Spatial Analysis Laboratory. We need more;
in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 percent of the total land base. The rapid
turnover of large parcels in recent years makes it more plausible that
this goal can be reached. But we need to select our conservation lands
in a strategic manner, not set them aside willy-nilly.
He knows this firsthand. Capen and his lab have been behind-the-scenes
players in several huge conservation land deals including Champion
International Paper Companys divestment of 300,000 acres across
New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York in 1999 and International Papers
sale of 171,000 acres in New Hampshire three years later. In fact,
there are too many opportunities, Capen says. The land has
been coming up for sale faster than the conservation organizations can
come up with the funds.
Technology helps winnow those choices down. Capen has assisted entities
from the Trust for Public Land to state agencies with maps of land patterns,
ownership, species distributions, and watersheds. Without the new
technologies, planners would be working in the dark, Capen says.
For example, how many acres were being cut in 1994 when the Northern Forest
Lands Council set out its much-cited recommendations about protecting
the forest? Nobody knew. Until this information became available from
satellite imagery and aerial photography, most corporations kept it secret.
Its been a real breakthrough for conservation planning to
be able to fly overhead and come up with those calculations, Capen
adds. Some landowners thought it was a communist plot, because we
looked down on their properties from a satellite.
Though the long-term trends are still troubling, an unexpected mix of
new technologies, smarter planning, a capricious global timber economy,
and increased coordination among conservation groups will let some big
chunks of the Northern Forest remain forest. Ten years ago,
Capen says, I dont think anyone would have dreamed that we
would have had the really significant conservation advances that have
taken place here.
IN A NORTHERN GRAIN
To only see a satellite-high view of the Northern Forest risks missing
its finer texture and grain. Literally. To get a closer view, visit the
UVM Continuing Education office at 322 South Prospect Street in Burlington
and find the conference table in the front room, a bright rectangle of
maple with clear finish and clean lines. Crawl underneath it (the receptionist
probably wont mind) and look at the label. It reads Island
This simple table may represent a new and happier story about the Northern
Forests economy, or, at least, a promising chapter in an often-bleak
tale. But it starts badly. When Bruce Wilkie showed up for work on July
20, 2001, the state police met him at the door. The 27-year veteran of
the Ethan Allen Furniture Company in Island Pond, Vermont, and 120 other
workers were then told to clear out, the plant was closing and moving
Jon Erickson, associate professor in UVMs Gund Institute for Ecological
Economics, says this kind of move should come as no surprise. Globally,
in forest management and manufacturing standards, its a race to
the bottom, he says. Its a hunt for the cheapest labor
and wood, so big companies go to poor countries where there is no environmental
regulation. Its more expensive to harvest wood sustainably, its
more expensive to pay people health insurance, its more expensive
to be a long-term steward of land. Erickson, who works with citizen
groups to help them make decisions about their own land, says the dilemma
for Northern Forest companies is to find ways to attract premium prices
for their products in a market dominated by Ikea, Target, and Wal-Mart.
While unemployed, Bruce Wilkie began to ponder similar questions. This
was a one-industry town in the rural Northeast Kingdom. It would be like
losing IBM in Chittenden County, he says. People could have
loaded up their pick-ups with everything they own like the Dust Bowl days,
and left this place as another rural slum, he says, but we
have a long tradition of woodworking in this town. We decided to take
things into our own hands. Wilkie and three former co-workers began
an effort to get back to work.
To make a long story (and very long list of supporting organizations,
banks, agencies, investors, and friends) short: on February 15, 2003,
Senator Patrick Leahy cut the ribbon on a new 15,000-square-foot furniture
plant. There is nothing remarkable about the beige, corrugated warehouse
except the sign over the door, Island Pond Woodworkers, An Employee
Owned Company. We want to be a model of what the furniture industry
could be, says Wilkie, now the companys vice-president for
sales and marketing and chief designer. We make quality hardwood
furniture without raping the forest.
Making furniture is the easy part, finding buyers is the work. As Erickson
argues, You cant count on individual consumers to choose sustainable
wood when they open their pocketbooks. The local $1,000 table looks pretty
much like the $100 table made by slaves with wood from Indonesian clearcuts.
But it is effective when big institutions make market choices to support
their local economy.
For the woodworkers, Middlebury College provided the first big chance,
a $509,000 contract to build furniture for a new library all from
wood grown in Vermont, bearing the label of the Forest Stewardship Council.
This green-certification is one of the companys chief
marketing tools, and it fits together with their use of character
wood: instead of seeing a small knot or odd grain as a one-way ticket
to the scrap pile, their furniture is adapted to these natural variations.
We like to think our products reflect the forest they come from,
Next, Dartmouth College wanted the woodworkers to build furniture from
trees on the colleges own land in New Hampshire. UVM expert David
Capen provided information that helped plan the harvest, using aerial
photography to delineate classes of forest and wetland as a guide for
lower-impact timber management. And, when UVM purchased 80 green-certified
local tables from a Shelburne-based firm in 2002, they, in turn, contracted
out final assembly and finishing of the tables to the fledgling Island
On the plants shop floor, dust collectors whir as 20 employees use
touch-screen consoles to run a glue wheel, planer, and double-ended tenoner,
keeping parts moving down the line. Coming to the finishing station, Wilkie
stops. Weve been spraying lacquer in here all day and you
cant smell it. This is a safe place to work. And if there
is a problem, employees have some leverage: with a required $2,000 investment
the workers are the shareholders of the company and of a community,
tradition, and forest. The workers value their stake.
I went back to the woods when Ethan Allen closed, logging on our
property in Newark, says floor supervisor Earl Leigh. My son
and I worked up there a year. We cut just enough logs to get by; we didnt
want to cut it all off
Its good to be back making furniture
and this is good stuff.
photo by Sally McCay
Island Pond is not the only rural community whose people have risen to
defend a threatened tradition. Across the region, there are landowners
standing up to protect what they see at risk in the Northern Forest: wilderness.
Despite major advances in conservation over the past decade, less than
three percent of the region is strictly protected. Thats not nearly
enough, says Kathleen Fitzgerald G99, executive director of the
two-year-old Northeast Wilderness Trust, and graduate of UVMs Field
She sees a new role for the burgeoning land trust movement: holding easements
on land designated forever wild. For many years, easements
legal agreements where a landowner hands over development rights
to another party in return for tax breaks or other compensation
have been used to protect land and they have gone a long way toward keeping
forestland as functional forest. Yet, many land trust holdings are covered
by multiple-use forest easements: they prevent developments
but may allow uses like herbicide spraying, excessive logging, and racing
ATVs. This so-called multiple use land is crucial, Fitzgerald
agrees. But she wants to carve out a place for wildness as well, places
where nature more or less takes its course and animals can move among
We hope to inspire others to offer forever-wild easements,
she says of her new group, which, so far, holds three easements on 250
acres. The ground is ripe for the land trust movement to ask: what
does the best use of land really mean?
To explain, she rolls out a large map labeled Adirondack Park Open Space
Protection Plan. Private landowners can find a model of wilderness in
this western flank of the Northern Forest: since 1894, nearly half
2.5 million acres of the park has been preserved by the state constitution
as forever wild. But look at this, she says pointing to the
edge of the map, along the biologically-rich Lake Champlain shoreline
there is very little protected. Weve secured two properties there
and are looking at another. This area has been hammered, but its
a key location in the center of a wildway for animals and its slated
for subdivision. We need to think long-term.
The reforestation of New England has helped to bring back nearly exterminated
beavers, bears, and deer to Vermont. But what about the elusive marten
and lynx now only remaining in isolated pockets? Might they return with
more wild land? In pre-settlement Vermont, wolves and caribou roamed.
Could they ever return? One thing that is known: the forests rebirth
has brought back the moose. If Fitzgeralds plans work, when a big
bull leaves the Green Mountains inspired by who-knows-what kind
of lust in his heart to swim across Lake Champlain, it will always
have at least one wooded corridor into the Adirondack High Peaks.
The restoration of shy, wide-ranging species that once ruled the Northern
Forest will require much more than strict easements; it will take the
cooperation of many parties from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to hunting
clubs to state legislatures. The Northeast Wilderness Trust would like
to do its part to help private landowners keep the way open. The rationale
for doing that, says Fitzgerald, is clear.
We need wilderness areas no logging, no motorized vehicles,
no roads, where nature can takes its own course, she says, for
scientific study as a benchmark, as refuge for shy wild creatures, and
also because people in the Northeast want quiet wild places to go.
Brief History of a Big Forest
11,000 Before Present Trees begin to appear in the icy tundra of
4,500 BP Northern Forest similar to today, a mix of hemlock and
1763 Having defeated the French, English settlers begin rapid clearing
of old-growth Vermont forests.
1840s Northern Forest is world-leading timber region as logging
reaches into Adirondacks.
1850s and 1860s Lure of midwestern prairie and Civil War contribute
to massive farm abandonment. Fields reverts to second-growth forest, mostly
1880 to 1920 Forests devastated; millions of board feet of pine
1930s Northern hardwoods maple, beech, birch dominate,
forming a third-generation forest.
1970s Many regionally-owned timberlands and sawmills bought up
by multinational corporations.
1988 Nearly one-million acres of forestland formerly owned by the
Diamond International Corporation comes onto market, provoking anxiety
about the future of the region. Congress creates land study that delineates
26.2-million-acre region as The Northern Forest.
1998 Congress creates the Northeastern States Research Cooperative
to study the Northern Forest.