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photo by Sally McCay

The 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.

A Forest Threatened
by Joshua Brown

To 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 Hampshire’s 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 mountains—in 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 Frost’s verse — “house that is no more a house, /But only a belilaced cellar hole, /Now slowly closing like a dent in dough”—put poetry to history: in 1850 Vermont was 75 percent farmland, today it is more than 75 percent forested.

But 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 forest’s 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.

Keeton 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. “We’re 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 maple’s whole crown flames green in the sunlight.

“Look 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. What’s 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. “Here’s 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 eggs.”

The trees he had toppled and left were not wasted; they’re 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 tree’s 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 of acres.

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 Keeton’s 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, they’re 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. Troy’s 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 forest’s 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.

Capen photo by Sally McCay

“We do not have enough reserve land protected from development and extractive uses,” says Professor David Capen, a colleague of Troy’s and director of UVM’s 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 Company’s divestment of 300,000 acres across New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York in 1999 and International Paper’s 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. “It’s 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 don’t think anyone would have dreamed that we would have had the really significant conservation advances that have taken place here.”

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 won’t mind) and look at the label. It reads “Island Pond Woodworkers.”

This simple table may represent a new and happier story about the Northern Forest’s 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 to China.

Jon Erickson, associate professor in UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, says this kind of move should come as no surprise. “Globally, in forest management and manufacturing standards, it’s a race to the bottom,” he says. “It’s a hunt for the cheapest labor and wood, so big companies go to poor countries where there is no environmental regulation. It’s more expensive to harvest wood sustainably, it’s more expensive to pay people health insurance, it’s 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 company’s 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 can’t 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 company’s 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,” Wilkie says.

Next, Dartmouth College wanted the woodworkers to build furniture from trees on the college’s 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 Pond Woodworkers.

On the plant’s 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. “We’ve been spraying lacquer in here all day and you can’t 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 didn’t want to cut it all off… It’s good to be back making furniture and this is good stuff.”

Fitzgerald 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. That’s not nearly enough, says Kathleen Fitzgerald G’99, executive director of the two-year-old Northeast Wilderness Trust, and graduate of UVM’s Field Naturalist Program.

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 different habitats.

“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. We’ve secured two properties there and are looking at another. This area has been hammered, but it’s a key location in the center of a wildway for animals and it’s 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 forest’s rebirth has brought back the moose. If Fitzgerald’s 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.”

A Brief History of a Big Forest
11,000 Before Present Trees begin to appear in the icy tundra of future Vermont.
4,500 BP Northern Forest similar to today, a mix of hemlock and northern hardwoods.
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 white pine.
1880 to 1920 Forests devastated; millions of board feet of pine clearcut.
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.