Timber harvesting / Condition of the resource / Improving utility of our forest resource
Challenges / Spotlight On: Sidelands Sugarbush
Vermonters' interest in forest land issues is steadily increasing. During the past year, Vermonters have discussed - sometimes argued passionately over - issues such as continued access to forests for recreation, the safety and visibility of high-elevation communication towers, aesthetic and ecological concerns about heavy cutting, and regulation of forest management. This intensified focus on Vermont's forests underscores the tremendous social, economic, and ecological values of our woodlands. Our perceptions of a limited resource make us pay more attention to how it is used and what plans we need to ensure its future vitality.
A major part of maintaining a natural resource base that supports healthy ecosystems as well as the economic and social values important to Vermonters is to ensure that all natural resource plans are comprehensive and written with public participation. The Agency of Natural Resources commenced three planning processes in 1997 that will affect the state's forests for the next 10 years or longer:
The Lands Conservation Plan will guide the Agency's land conservation and acquisition efforts. Elements of the new plan will identify priorities for conservation, recommend different means of conserving lands for different types of uses, and spell out criteria by which the Agency would consider selling or exchanging state-owned land. A steering committee comprised of representatives from conservation organizations, the timber industry, municipalities, regional planning commissions, and the Agency is directing this planning process. The final plan should be completed midway through 1998.
Long-Range Planning for Agency Lands is exploring new options for managing state lands. Currently, each parcel of state land is managed according to a long-range plan. The Agency is field testing two new methods for comprehensive long-range planning. The first, at Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area near Groton, uses a biodiversity inventory to aid in planning. The second planning method, at Mount Mansfield State Forest, uses a public steering committee to help develop a long-range plan.
The Forest Resource Plan will reflect the ecological, social, and economic conditions of the state, and is being developed through a process of active involvement of a diverse group of stakeholders. The final plan should be done by July 1998.
Nearly 90 percent of Vermont's forest land is owned by individuals and forest industries. A recent forest landowner survey found that more than 60 percent of landowners have forest management plans, most of which were prepared by professional foresters. The most common reasons for harvesting timber were to improve the stand, a feeling that the trees were mature, and because the owners' forest management plan called for a harvest. Thirty percent of the landowners said paying the parcel's property taxes was a primary reason for harvesting. The survey found that the most common concern among forest landowners is the combined effect of an increasing property tax burden and the state's failure to fully fund the current use program (a tax rebate program for actively managed forest lands) every year (Figure 1).
The state Forest Resources Advisory Council in 1996 determined that the rate of heavy cutting had increased significantly during the past 20 years (Figure 2). In response to the council's findings and to promote sustainable forestry, the Legislature enacted a new law in 1997 to limit heavy cutting. The law requires a landowner to file a Notice of Intent to Cut if the landowner plans to heavy cut on more than 40 acres, or more than 80 acres within 2 miles. Under a limited number of conditions, heavy cutting is permitted. The Agency is implementing the law under an emergency rule, and copies of it are available through the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. A permanent rule will be developed in 1998. In the meantime, the Agency's Forestry Division is meeting with foresters, landowners, and loggers to explain the law.
Condition of the resource
A statewide survey of hardwood tree health has shown a general improvement during the past decade. Acres of significant mortality have decreased from 14,000 in 1986 to 1,000 in 1996. Likewise, individual tree health has improved from 78 percent of trees rated as healthy 10 years ago to 89 percent healthy in 1996 (Figure 3).
Historically, non-native forest pests have been devastating to our forests. Exotic pests have eliminated species (chestnut blight), reduced tree diversity in our forests (Dutch elm disease) and diminished forest health (gypsy moth, beech bark disease, and pear thrips). When a potentially disastrous exotic pest - the Asian long-horned beetle, which destroys maple trees - was discovered in New York City in 1997, the response was quick and assertive. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, working with the University of Vermont, the Vermont Department of Agriculture, and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, received nearly 1,000 responses to a solicitation for help in spotting the beetle in Vermont. To date, there have been no confirmed sightings in Vermont.
Not all exotic species have negative impacts. In urban and community forests, non-native species can add tremendous diversity to the landscape and create a more resilient tree population. The city of Rutland, for example, has 25 native tree species and 31 non-natives. This doubles the community's tree diversity and provides opportunities for using appropriate trees for specific site requirements.
Improving utility of our forest resource
Education of natural resource management professionals by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation includes logger education courses which trained about 400 people in 1996. Information focuses on knowing what lumber mills' needs are, the specifications of wood needed, and utilizing wood accordingly. Because defects in wood greatly impact the value of the material, loggers are trained to observe defects and learn methods of cutting logs that maximize the highest-value wood. The economic gain from the use of this natural resource, therefore, achieves its greatest potential.
Recent new markets for lower-quality logs will improve the value obtained from thinning and provide better-quality trees for the future. Because a low-quality and high-quality eight-inch tree will yield about the same price in current markets, "high-grading" stands (removing the highest value trees and leaving lower-value, defective trees for the future) should be a thing of the past.
The beauty of our natural resources and high quality of life here in Vermont continue to attract people to the state. As our population grows and economic demands expand, pressures to maintain existing land uses will be challenging. Educating a changing Vermont public about the importance of forest lands, to respect the rights of private landowners, and to practice responsible land stewardship are important efforts in the near future. Success will mean the difference between maintaining Vermont as we know it or creating a future Vermont that sacrifices long-term sustainability of resources for short-term gains.
Forest land ownership can mean a partnership with the land, managing forests using a gentle, sustainable approach. Dan Crocker of Westminster practices such techniques on his property. Dan and his company, Sidelands Sugarbush, have developed a thriving business of maple syrup production. Recognizing the importance of healthy vigorous tress, they practice low-impact techniques such as using only one tap per tree, using shallow taps, doing corrective pruning, and thinning around production trees so they have room to grow. Active monitoring of insect and disease problems has helped identify and treat health risks. When pear thrips severely defoliated the sugarbush in 1988, Dan applied fertilizer to aid trees in recovering. All these management practices have helped minimize the impacts of sugaring and maximize the growth and health of trees.
Dan and his partners, Christine, Joanna, and Stumpy Crocker, realize that management of forests needs to include a long-term view of maintaining the crop, trees. So while their sugaring operation grosses about $100,000 per year, they don't rely solely on maple syrup for their livelihood. Over the years, Dan's ancestors have worked with professional foresters to develop management plans for their land. They maintain a diversity of tree species on the property. Different parts of their forest are managed for sawlog veneer, cabin log production, or fuelwood. The Crockers also generate $5,000 to $10,000 per year through firewood and sawlog sales.
This landowner sets a good example of how responsible land stewardship can sustain the resource and provide a stable economic livelihood.