Sustainable Forestry TodayAt every level of government, incentives now exist to help large property owners keep their forest lands intact and manage them in ways that continue to produce economic value while maintaining and even improving the health, integrity, and long-term viability of the forest ecosystem — its “sustainability.” These incentives make use of the growing body of scientific information about the “mechanics” of complex ecosystems – those intricate relationships between soils, water, microorganisms, climate, air quality, plants, insects, wildlife, trees, and humans that make up a healthy forest environment. While our understanding of these systems is still very limited, we do know that they function best when all the elements are present and kept in balance. Landowners who accept responsibility for managing their forests sustainably become more than managers — they become stewards. Stewardship, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.” What better way to describe the relationship we all ought to have toward the planet and our fellow inhabitants? The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation has an excellent guide to managing woodlands. Another excellent resource is the VT Coverts program, which runs workshops for forest owners at various locations around the state.
The “Use Value Appraisal” (Current Use) legislation enacted by Vermont in 1978 (Title 32, Ch. 124) has provided a solution for many of the large private landowners abutting Fairlee Forest whose annual tax burden had been exceeding the income they could derive from their trees and compelling them to consider selling the land to developers. Those who enroll in the program are able to keep their properties intact while paying lower “current use” tax rates in exchange for operating their forests under a Forest Management Plan. In so doing, they keep the land productive as well as healthy — healthy for the forests and healthy for its wildlife. Today about a third of Vermont’s total land area and many of Fairlee’s large private forest properties are enrolled in Current Use.
A Forest Management (or Stewardship) Plan is a written, long-range strategic plan for managing a working forest to achieve the owner’s income-producing goals while protecting the forest environment. Such a plan includes the owner’s goals, a set of specific objectives for each, an inventory and map of the natural resources on the land, including tree “stands” and wildlife habitats, and a defined schedule of activities (or conservation practices) that will help the owner achieve his or her objectives. Examples of such activities might include timber harvesting, wildlife habitat development, and invasive species and erosion control. A “management” plan is generally focused more on timber than a “stewardship” plan, but both take a holistic approach to the forest environment1.
Conservation Easements also came into general use in the 1980s as a way to compensate landowners for protecting values that their lands provide to the public, such as scenic beauty or wildlife habitat or clean water. This is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that limits the type or amount of development on a given property. Landowners continue to own, manage, and work their land, and can even sell it; however, the conservation easement permanently remains on the property. The easement is drafted specifically for the land in question and identifies both the restrictions placed on the conserved property as well as the activities that are allowed. Public funds can be used to purchase easements, or a landowner can donate an easement to a land trust or government entity in exchange for income and estate tax deductions. Land simultaneously under Conservation Easement and Current Use will also benefit from property tax deductions. Conservation easements have successfully protected hundreds of thousands of acres of productive forestland in Vermont and millions of acres of open space in the United States2.
While most public and many private forests in Vermont operate under Forest Management Plans today, town forests are not obliged to do so. What a town does with its forest lands is entirely at the discretion of its Selectboard unless constrained by the terms of the gifts or grants by which it obtained the land. Fairlee Forest parcels were donated for the purposes of public recreation and wildlife habitat, with logging to help defray expenses and maintain forest health. The 15-year Forest Management Plan the Town voluntarily elected to have drawn up in 2014 includes detailed information about the forest environment as well as specific objectives, actions, and timelines for achieving the founders’ goals.
While most nearby towns delegate management of their public forests to an official Conservation Commission, Fairlee has preferred to appoint a “forest board” instead, with responsibility initially for timber harvesting and maintenance of major logging roads. In the process of drafting its forest management plan, the Fairlee Forest Board resurrected the Forest’s founding documents indicating that environmental conservation and recreation were to be primary functions of the forest along with timber harvesting.
The Forest Management Plan integrates environmental conservation, improvement of wildlife habitat, and improvement of overall forest health with timber harvesting. Much of the harvesting is to be done in service to the first three goals. Logging under the plan began in 2014 with the clearing of views and invasive plants on Bald Top Mountain and an adjacent stand accessible by the same forest road. Over the course of the next ten to fifteen years, weather, access, and market conditions permitting, selection harvests will be conducted every year across nine of the total eighteen “stands” throughout the Forest. Most will be single tree cuts, meaning removal of trees to improve growing conditions for better trees and the harvest of some mature or high risk stems. In each stand leaving mother seed trees of desired species as well as standing dead trees, snags, slash, soft mast trees, and layered edges important to birds, soil health, and wildlife is a goal. In some areas, groups or patches of trees will be removed to open up one or more acres for regeneration of white pine, red oak, and other sun-loving species. The plan allows for buffer zones of 50-100 feet around wetlands, ponds, streams, and seeps. While not specified in the plan, loggers are required to repair forest roads and skid trails as needed, and to take all available measures to prevent erosion into nearby waterways.
Although most of the logging is to be done between late summer and winter months when forest roads and soils are dry or frozen, visitors to the forest will be aware of the logging activity and its impact on roads and trails. Needless to say, we should stay away from active felling operations.
The role of Friends of Fairlee Forests is to supplement the work of the Forest Board by supporting the wishes of the original forest donors and the intent of the Forest Management Plan with regard to public access, recreation, habitat research, and education. To this end, we will be working with the Forest Board, Audubon Vermont, and volunteer birders to study the actual long-term effects of the proposed cuts on birds and wildlife in the vicinity. We begin in 2015 with baseline inventories of animals in selected areas scheduled for cutting and will continue monitoring changes in these populations as the selected cuts regenerate.
Invasive Plants: The Forest Management Plan includes management of exotic plants in the harvesting process. Vermont forests face threats both from non-native insects and pathogens against which native plants have no defenses, and from non-native plants that can out-compete native species because we lack the predators or pathogens that kept them in check in their native regions. Forest ecosystems are complex mechanisms with countless inter-related parts that have evolved together and work in harmony. Altering any of the components has ripple effects on other components. Invasive non-native plant species, many of them escapees from our ornamental gardens, are a problem in our forest not because they are different, but because they can throw a whole ecosystem off balance. Forest stewardship involves controlling these invasions as much as possible, but it is also the responsibility of homeowners and landscapers to restrain from introducing invasive plants and controlling infestations on their properties. While some of the exotic plants spread by root sprouting or branch layering, most are much more widely dispersed by seed- or fruit-eating birds and mammals.
Today Vermont is faced with invasions of three exotic insects that could dramatically change our forests. The emerald ash borer and Asian longhorned beetle have already devastated forests in the mid-west and mid-Atlantic and are appearing on our borders. The hemlock woolly adelgid has been found in Windham County. Often these spread in transported firewood and logs, sometimes by unwitting campers, which is why it is now forbidden to carry firewood across many state lines. For further reading on these pests, see Invasive Insects: Achilles heels of the northern forest", an article from the Vermont Land Trust.
The list of exotic invasive plants is far longer and includes many garden standbys. Japanese barberry, burning bush, and purple loosestrife are lovely but aggressive invaders. Others include Oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, common reed, common and glossy buckthorn, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, Norway maple, bishop’s weed, shrub honeysuckle, Japanese honeysuckle, wild chervil, and yellow-flag iris.
Fortunately, the Fairlee Wetland is almost completely free of invasive plants, but parts of Fairlee Forest are plagued by buckthorn, and Japanese barberry, shrub honeysuckle, and bittersweet are beginning to appear. Trees in the forest show normal amounts of native diseases, but as yet none of the exotic pests is evident, according to Redstart Forestry Consultants' survey for the Forest Management Plan.
The Management Plan includes measures to control invasive plants within the town forest. Nearby landowners can help by eliminating the offending species from their properties. For more information on how to identify and eliminate invasive species please visit www.vtinvasives.org. It is not a fight we can win, but one we can contain.
2www.vlt.org/land-protection/tax-implications and www.state.vt.us/tax/pvrcurrentuse.shtml
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