Critics Call a Logging Plan in the Worcester Range a Missed Conservation Opportunity | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Critics Call a Logging Plan in the Worcester Range a Missed Conservation Opportunity 

Published January 24, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Bodo Carey - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bodo Carey

A proposal to allow logging on 1,935 acres of state-owned land in central Vermont has touched off opposition from neighbors and environmental activists who say those woods should be allowed to become old-growth forest.

The increased cutting is part of a draft management plan for 19,000 acres of state forest in the Worcester Range, a part of the Green Mountains north of Montpelier. Over the past century, there has been very little logging in the forest, where many of the trees are now 90 to 120 years old.

The draft plan protects about half the land from any logging. The protected areas include the ridgelines of Mount Hunger and Mount Worcester, important wildlife corridors, and popular scenic areas such as Moss Glen Falls near Stowe.

On the remaining land, logging would be allowed over the next 20 years on about 2,000 acres scattered across 13 locations from Elmore to Middlesex. That represents about a fivefold increase in the minimal timber harvest allowed on state land in the Worcester Range in recent decades.

State officials say the plan is appropriate given their charge to manage state lands for many purposes, including timber production. If Vermonters are going to build houses, make furniture and warm their homes with wood, it's better to harvest that timber locally than import it from elsewhere, the argument goes.

"This is public land, and we have a responsibility — in fact, it's legislatively mandated — that we produce forest products," said Danielle Fitzko, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

But critics denounce the plan to log in forests that, if left alone, could reach 150 years of age. Such "old-growth" forests help minimize floods, provide unique wildlife habitat and corridors, and better store carbon.

Worcester resident Bodo Carey, a retired middle school science teacher, said the mountains behind his home represent a unique conservation opportunity.

"I feel like it's a gift that's been given to the state," Carey said. "This area has a great chance to be put into old growth, which a lot of new science is saying is needed."

The fight over the Worcester Range is the latest debate over how to best manage forests as the climate changes. Plans to increase logging around Camel's Hump and in the Green Mountain National Forest have drawn similar criticism, as has the City of Burlington for burning wood chips to make electricity at its Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station.

The flare-up over the Worcester Range follows the passage last year of Act 59, or the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act, which set a goal to conserve 30 percent of all land in Vermont by 2030. The act aligns the state with the "30 by 30" executive order signed last year by President Joe Biden — but goes further in calling for 50 percent of Vermont land to be conserved by 2050.

The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board has until July 1 to conduct an inventory of Vermont's public and private conserved land, and until the end of 2025 to come up with a plan for meeting the 30-by-30 goal. Current estimates are that between 22 and 24 percent of land in the state is already protected, Jens Hawkins-Hilke, a state conservation planning biologist, said.

"We need to increase our level of investment, but 30 by 30 is doable," he said. "That's something Vermonters should be proud of."

But it's cold comfort for Carey as he worries over plans to log the eastern slopes near his Worcester home.

Carey used to take his middle school students up Mount Hunger every year to explore how the plant and animal life change with elevation, so he's intimately familiar with the mountains. It's clearly appropriate to prohibit logging in the upper elevations of the range, though there's little risk of that due to the steep slopes and thin soils, he said. The lower areas should be protected to help the state meet its new forest conservation goals, he said.

It makes no sense for Vermont to push logging on lands that, if preserved, could go a long way toward helping the state meet those goals, he continued.

"They've been working on this plan for years. What's the rush?" he asked. "I say pull the reins on it now and hold off."

Since less than 1 percent of Vermont's forestland is old growth — and increasing that number would take decades — there is little room for error in making decisions about logging, he said. He's worried that the state will move forward with the current plan only to later find it falls short of the new conservation goals.

"By then, some of the stands of trees are going to be logged, and then it's too late," Carey said

The new law creates three categories of conserved lands. An "ecological reserve area" is land maintained in a natural state — essentially wild. A "biodiversity conservation area" is managed to sustain native plants and animals. And a "natural resource management area" is for "long-term sustainable land management," including sustainably logged forests, grasslands and agriculture that supports biodiversity.

Carey argues that the entire 18,772 acres in the management plan should be set aside as an ecological reserve area, which would put it off-limits to logging forever. But Act 59 does not require that and allows lands that are managed for sustainable forestry to be counted as conserved.

The Middlesex Planning Commission backed up Carey last week, noting that surveys show residents overwhelmingly support protection of the forestland that forms the town's western border. "There are few places in Vermont that offer the opportunity to create an Ecological Preserve at such a scale as the Worcesterrange," commissioners wrote.

But Fitzko, the forestry commissioner, disagrees, saying the Worcester management plan is "very much aligned" with the 30-by-30 goals.

In addition to protecting more than half the land from logging, the plan requires a selective harvest of the acres that are logged, often with an eye to improving forest health and diversity, she said.

If it turns out later that more restrictions on logging are needed to meet future goals, the plan could be amended, she said. The largest of the 13 areas designated for logging, a 284-acre tract of sugar maple, beech and yellow birch in the C.C. Putnam State Forest, isn't scheduled to be cut until 2037.

"We feel fine about going forward," she said.

Others say doing so would be reckless. Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees, a Montpelier-based forest protection group, said the state's own reports are replete with descriptions of the Worcester Range as critical wildlife and forest habitat.

The plan describes the area as of "exceptional ecological importance at local, statewide, and regional scales," with trees up to 120 years old and habitat for species that prefer deep forest, such as the scarlet tanager, northern goshawk and pine marten. Porter called it "crazy" to allow logging on such land when more accessible private timberland abounds in the state. He noted that 98 percent of wood harvested in Vermont comes from private land.

"Putting half of the Worcester Range Management Unit, one of Vermont's largest wild forests, into timber production would be a tragedy of epic proportions," he said. (In addition to designating 1,935 acres for harvesting in the next 20 years, the management plan assigns about half the total acreage in the state forest to a land-use category that could permit logging in the future).

Act 59 calls for efforts to be guided by a 2018 Agency of Natural Resources document called Vermont Conservation Design. It outlines ways Vermont could sustain its "ecologically functional landscape based on our best science." It recommends restoring 9 percent of the state's forest to the old-growth conditions that existed before European settlers arrived.

While that's a goal, not a mandate, it's clear that lawmakers support protecting more forests so they can eventually become old growth, Porter said. One of the sponsors of Act 59, Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury), said planning the future of the Worcester Range presents an opportunity to make progress toward the 9 percent goal — the importance of which was underscored by recent flooding.

"I would hate to see that opportunity lost," she said.

Sheldon added that she is concerned about the amount of logging proposed in the plan. Old-growth forests at lower elevations are where the state needs them most, she said.

Fitzko noted that the 271-page plan is about far more than timber harvests. It includes a diverse set of uses, including a sugaring lease in Elmore, building hiking trails around Stowe and managing one of the state's most popular mountain biking trail networks, in Waterbury.

The proposed logging, nevertheless, prompted the most discussion at public meetings held in December in Worcester and Stowe. The deadline for public input on the plan is February 2, and staff will closely review that feedback before finalizing the plan later this year, Fitzko said.

It's hard to say how much the feedback might change the plan, she said. Even if the public comments are overwhelmingly against logging, that doesn't mean harvests would be scaled back, she said.

An end to timber cutting on public lands in Vermont would just shift that demand elsewhere and could harm an industry that is already beset by labor shortages, higher fuel costs and a shorter winter harvest season due to climate change.

"It's really an illusion of preservation because we're still going to get wood from somewhere," Fitzko said.

Ed Larson, a lobbyist for the Vermont Forest Products Association, said keeping state lands open for logging is vital to the industry's health. If the industry that turns trees into wood products vanishes, then private landowners won't be able to make a living off their forests and pressure to sell and subdivide woodlands will increase, he said.

"If we didn't have a forest economy, a lot of the forests would simply disappear," he said.

Larson disputes the idea that old-growth forestland is more biologically diverse or better at sequestering carbon. Properly managed timberland creates habitat for species that don't thrive in old growth, such as rabbits, he noted.

David Hinton, an author from East Calais who has written a book about the Worcester Range, said the notion that logging improves forest health reflects the false Eurocentric belief that unused land is useless.

"The state is already 95 percent compromised," he said. "We're talking about the last little bits that are left, and they want to compromise that, too."

A 2021 progress report by the Agency of Natural Resources found that while less than 1 percent of state forestland is old growth, 218,000 acres were on their way to becoming "future old forest lands" thanks to conservation measures. That means the state is on track to meet about half of the old-growth goal. In the northern Green Mountains, an area that stretches from Killington to the Canadian border, enough forest is moving toward old-growth status to meet 80 percent of the goal, Fitzko said.

Porter expressed skepticism about that claim but said that if it is accurate, the state should take the next step.

"What better way to get closer to the goal than to protect nearly 19,000 acres of the already wild Worcester Range in perpetuity?" he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Taking a Stand | Critics call plan to log in the Worcester Range a missed conservation opportunity"

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About The Author

Kevin McCallum

Kevin McCallum

Bio:
Kevin McCallum is a political reporter at Seven Days, covering the Statehouse and state government. He previously was a reporter at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.

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