History of the Fairlee Forest
The original forests of Vermont and New Hampshire consisted mostly of shade-tolerant species able to grow under the full canopy of parent generations. Typical were spruce, hemlock, yellow birch, beech, and sugar maple. Where natural disturbances such as hurricanes and epidemic infestations occurred, white pines, oaks, ash, birch, cherry and other sun-loving trees could get a start. Once an old-growth forest complex is cut, it takes a century without further disturbance for it to begin reconstituting itself and another to mature.1
Native Americans have probably hunted in Fairlee’s forests since the glaciers withdrew some 10,000 years ago. In recent millennia, Abenaki bands that grew corn, beans, squash, and tobacco in small villages along the Connecticut River (Kwanitekw, or “Long River”) floodplain during summer months moved into the hills to hunt deer and moose in late winter. While the closest major village to Fairlee (variously called Koasek, Cowasuck, Cowass, or Goesek) during Colonial times was near Newbury, earlier villages and smaller encampments had undoubtedly existed all along the floodplain wherever there was arable land and access to fish and navigable streams. Hunters would have made frequent short forays into the nearby hills for deer, beaver, and small game year-round.
Between 1600 and 1800, as European diseases decimated Native populations, European settlers gradually replaced the Abenaki on the choicest Connecticut River farmlands and began felling the hillside forests. First it was for homesteads, farms, and livestock, then timbers and fuel for the railroads that moved up the river in the 1850s, and then the industries that followed the railroads. In the century and a half since the first English settlement in Vermont was established near Brattleboro in 1724, seventy percent of Vermont’s forests were cut down. This was most intense near rivers like the Connecticut down which logs could be floated to distribution points and mills.
By the 1850s, the clearing of forests and draining of wetlands, coupled with unregulated hunting and trapping, had drastically reduced Vermont’s wildlife populations. Beaver had all but disappeared, trapped to satisfy Europe’s taste for beaver hats. Native mountain lions (catamounts), wolves, and other predator species vanished completely. Deer populations had declined so precipitously by 1865 that, for the next 32 years, it was illegal to hunt them. Still, the demand for wood continued to grow unchecked. After the Civil War, logging became the largest and most profitable industry in Vermont. By the end of the 19th Century, even the northernmost forests were being carted off by rail to lumber and paper mills throughout the eastern United States and Canada.
Vermont’s forests were dealt a double blow with the introduction of Merino sheep to the denuded hills in 1811. By 1836, Fairlee had more than 5,000 sheep, according to Philip Robinson’s book A History of Fairlee, Vermont. Sheep eat ground-cover plants down to the roots and kill many shrubs and saplings by peeling off the inner bark. During the thirty years before the wool market collapsed, Merino wool yielded large profits for the farmers but stripped the deforested hills most other vegetation. The thin soil washed down slopes and filled streams with sediment, causing floods and depleting fish populations.
In 1847, George Perkins Marsh, then a U.S. Congressman for Vermont, published an "Address Delivered Before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County" advocating a conservationist approach to management of forest lands. This was followed in 1864 by his classic book, Man and Nature, about the dire consequences to the American landscape of wholesale deforestation and sheep ranching evident around his Woodstock farm. While sustainable forestry was a familiar concept in Europe and elsewhere, Marsh was the first to advocate sustainable management of forests, soils, and natural watersheds in America.
Marsh’s ideas gained traction in the work of Gifford Pinchot, director of the U.S. Forest Service from 1905 to 1910. In the 1940s, Pinchot’s conviction that “trees could be cut and the forest preserved at the same time,” found its way to Vermont in the person of our state forester, Perry Merrill. Merrill brought to Vermont the concept of the “working forest,” where harvesting of trees could be done in a way that did not alter the look and wildlife values of the forest.
In the 1940s and 50s, forestry programs in Vermont were largely focused on reforestation, maintenance of forest and tree health to sustain high yields, maintaining the environments the forests depended on, creation of municipal forests, and acquisition of more state land. As farming declined in the decades after 1930, the forests began to reclaim unused pastures and fields on their own, and the rest is history — or rather, evident in the lush green hills around us.
As for Vermont’s native wildlife, it has largely rebounded or returned as well. We even have confirmed sightings of catamount and — in the Northeast Kingdom — small populations of lynx. Vermont’s beavers began to make a slow comeback after 1910 when placed under the protection of state law. In the 1920s and 30s they got a boost with the reintroduction of specimens from New York and Maine by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. By the 1940s and 1950s, beaver were once again well established in the state. The first open trapping season (15 days) occurred in 1950. Aerial surveys conducted on the Green Mountain National Forest indicated that beaver population levels had increased by 120% between the 1980s and 1990s.
Moose are back now, too, and deer are so numerous along the Connecticut River watershed that they are consuming not only our home gardens but tree saplings and wildflowers important both to forestry and the forest ecosystem. In spite of Vermont’s proud hunting heritage, some believe too few deer are taken here now to keep the population at a healthy level. Absent the wolf and catamount, the only predators capable of helping us keep deer in check are our Eastern coyotes, a unique, non-native species with some grey wolf DNA. But neither coyotes, bobcats, nor bears take many adult deer or have much impact on herd size, and few hunters welcome their help — or competition. In fact, Vermont has an open season on its coyotes.
Traces of the 19th century logging and sheep-ranching enterprises can still be discovered in the Fairlee Forest. Even on the poor, ledge-y eastern slopes of the hills, an observant visitor can find the hulking remains of old pasture trees, a short line of stones under the ferns, a depression where a shepherd’s hut may once have stood, a twist of barbed wire embedded in the bark of an old pine, a fragment of brick chimney.
On the west side of Bald Top, some upland sections in what is now Fairlee Forest were too steep for logging or sheep farming. There the forest remained largely undisturbed. A venerable 20-acre old-growth northern hardwood-hemlock stand, with trees thought to be over 150 years old, still exists on the west-facing southwest slope of Bald Top. Below these upland sections, the soils seem more fertile than the thin soils on the eastern slopes, judging from the native plants that grow there (though the soils map in the management plan for Fairlee Forest doesn’t bear this observation out). It was always prime grazing land, and among the trees on the lower elevations north, west, and southwest of Bald Top, one can still find the long stone walls that were meant to keep cows from farms along Blood Brook Road out of the “wild lands” above, or worse — the marshlands along Brushwood Road — according to Sheldon Miller’s fascinating but hard to find Recollections of Milldale Farm, edited by David Donath and published by the University of Vermont Press in 1976.
Many of the forest roads themselves go back two hundred years or more. Most of Brushwood Road and eastern sections of Knox Road, where stone walls suggest an earlier farm, have clearly been incised by centuries of cart wheels, their beds deeper in places even than the old stone walls that run alongside. Brushwood/Millpond Road was once the main route to markets in Bradford from farms in West Fairlee, and also the connection between West Fairlee and Fairlee. Cross Mountain Road, once known as The Woods Road, was probably a horse track and before that an Indian trail, since it follows an obvious pass between the hills separating Fairlee and West Fairlee. Throughout the centuries of heavy logging, Cross Mountain, Knox, and Howdy’s trails were undoubtedly conduits for horse-drawn sleds and carts hauling logs down to the river. The open “landings” on these roads were staging grounds where logs were loaded onto the wagons, originally by hand with levers and, after 1882, with the help of a mechanical “steam donkey” winch. Many of what we call “trails” are old “skid” roads, where the trees were dragged down to the landings on a bed of greased logs set crossways. Later they could be drawn down by a cable attached to the steam donkey. Remnants of cable and other equipment can still be found along some of the old roads.
There were farmsteads along the western end of Brushwood Road as well. Until the early decades of the 20th century, a small settlement and school stood at Brushwood’s intersection with what is now Millpond Road. Today only trees rise from the old cellar holes of this community, but the mill dam is still there. Forest properties along both sides of the road remain in private hands and today are used primarily as family woodlots, hunting camps, and recreational areas for summer camps of the Aloha Foundation.
Land on the east side of Fairlee Forest between its northern boundary and the north side of Knox Road extension seems not to have been suitable for cattle, judging from the absence of continuous stone walls, so after the wool market collapsed, the forest must have reclaimed those slopes rather quickly. Logging was always difficult and dangerous in Fairlee Forest due to the steepness of the hillsides, but wherever purchase could be had for the sawyers, one can see the stumps of trees cut on slopes facing the Connecticut River. Judging from the large log landings and roadbeds east of Bald Top, as well as the obviously shorter distances to both riverside and railroad landings, it appears that significant commercial logging continued on these privately owned eastern tracts until and possibly beyond their transfer to the public.
By the 1980s when the Lange family donated 770+ acres to the Town of Fairlee, and the Town acquired additional properties with federal matching grant funds, many of the remaining private landholdings in the hills were primarily used for hunting and family woodlots. As the land passed to younger generations with less time and inclination to continue this lifestyle, many properties went unused. Later, construction of the interstate highway made owning vacation and retirement homes in places like Fairlee more attractive. Land values and property taxes rose accordingly. People soon became concerned that the resulting pressure to subdivide and develop what had been working forests and farm lands was threatening the very character of Vermont. A progressive state government quickly took decisive action.