A picture of Vermont taken today from a satellite would show a heavily forested state, with the greatest concentration of trees along the mountain ranges running north and south. Aside from the Champlain Valley and the flat ribbons of land following the states major rivers, the heavy forest cover is only broken by occasional farm fields and villages nestled in the valleys.
This image of Vermont is borne out by the most recent forest inventory of the state, completed in 1998 by the U.S. Forest Service, which shows Vermont to be 78 percent forested, an increase of 1.4 percent in the past 15 years (Figure 1).
A similar image from 1948, if it were available, would reveal noticeably less forest cover across the state. The range and ridge concentrations would still be easy to see, but the areas between would show much less forest cover. The 1948 forest inventory indicated that the state was 63 percent forested at the time, meaning Vermonts forests have increased by more than 895,000 acres in the past half century.
During these five decades, as Vermonts forest area was increasing, forest harvest was increasing as well. Total forest harvest was 723,100 cords in 1948, dipped to a low of 378,200 cords in 1971, and climbed to 1,237,700 cords in 1996.
The continued growth of forest land across the Vermont landscape during the past 50 years is part of a remarkable story: the recovery of Vermonts woodlands since the late 1800s, when trees covered only 20 to 30 percent of the state. In the 20th Century, Vermont forests have supplied wood products for a booming industrial society, two world wars, and the post-World War II building boom. During this century, the state has become home to a growing number of private forest landowners as well as a vibrant forest products economy.
The opening section of this report will focus on trends during the past 50 years, since the U.S. Forest Service began inventorying Vermont forests every 10 to 15 years. The most recent inventory was performed in 1996 and 1997, before the Ice Storm of January 1998, which damaged more than 700,000 acres of forest land. The resulting inventory data do not reflect the impact of that storm on the timber volumes and tree conditions within the affected area. A re-measurement of the area is underway, and the outcome will be incorporated into the broader inventory in order to better reflect actual current conditions. All data in this section use the inventory information obtained to date in comparison to previous surveys. The re-measurement will change the final volume estimates; the extent of the change is unknown but is not expected to be dramatic. Also, the data contained here describe a statewide situation: local conditions may vary greatly.
Vermont does not rely solely on the periodic statewide forest inventory for assessing the state of the forest. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation publishes an annual harvest report and assesses forest health conditions periodically. The inventory is useful primarily to the degree that it can be integrated with the other data sets which the state collects.
The 1997 inventory data provide two benchmarks which are useful: change since the previous inventory in 1983 and change since the first one in 1948. The short-term change satisfies people's interest in what has happened in recent years. The longer-term change offers a unique opportunity to look at comparative forest conditions over 50 years.
In plain terms, Vermonts forests since 1983 have grown older and larger, occupy more land with more trees, and show signs of continuing maturation. These trends are demonstrated by increasing average tree diameter and the number of trees at least five inches in diameter and four and one-half feet above ground (Figure 2). These trends are even more notable when comparing the 1997 data to the 1948 inventory.
Since 1983, growing stock volume has increased 38.8 percent in Vermont (Figure 3). Growing stock volume is the estimated commercial volume in trees which are at least five inches in diameter at four and one-half feet above the ground. Growing stock volume encompasses more commercial volume than saw timber volume alone since it will include trees which could be cut for pulpwood or whole-tree chips as part of a thinning.
The growth-to-removals ratio (Table 1) tells to what extent sustained yield exists in the forest. A 1-to-1 ratio indicates that harvest volume is equal to the growth in the forest. Sustained yield requires that harvest not exceed growth. A growth-to-removals ratio of 2-to-1 indicates that an amount of growth equal to harvest is left to become part of inventory. The present growth-to-removals ratio indicates that an amount of annual growth equal to 86 percent of the harvest is left in inventory. (Average annual removals are not the same as actual harvest. Removals averaged 82,975,000 cubic feet per year between the 1983 and 1997 inventories; the actual harvest in 1996, however, topped 105,000,000 cubic feet.)
Forest growth rate, also shown in Table 1, is 2.24 percent of inventory per year. The growth rate in Vermont has been as high as 3.37 percent (in 1948), and as low as 1.98 percent (in 1966).
Forest composition can be analyzed by showing the number of trees by species as a percent of the total (Figure 4). Data on tree numbers by species are not available for 1948 and 1966. Some species are combined because of similarities.
Composition in general can be viewed in two ways, commercial and biological. For commercial interests, there are some tree species which are not desirable because the market places little value on them. Because nobody can predict what hardwoods or softwoods will be in demand 20 or 30 years into the future, however, some of todays less-valuable species may later be in demand.
From a biological viewpoint, commercially less-valuable species may be important for wildlife habitat or for maintaining a diverse mix of trees. A diverse mix of trees can also be valuable in terms of reducing the impact of species-specific diseases or insects. The trend in Vermont, however, has been one of fewer species making up more of the inventory of number of trees since 1973, which concerns foresters. As our forests contain fewer species, they become susceptible to disease and menacing pests such as thrips, forest tent caterpillars, and the Asian longhorned beetle. Maple at about 33 percent of all trees and spruce and fir at about 18 percent of all trees make up the bulk of inventory. Hemlock and birch represent a second tier at 13 percent and 10 percent of all trees, respectively.
Forest land ownership is divided into the categories private and public. Public land is owned by federal, state, and local governments. Table 2 shows the proportions of forest land owned within each category by year. Over time, public ownership has grown faster than has private.
Since 1945, Vermont has annually reported the volume of wood harvested from the forest (Figure 5). The information is obtained by asking wood buyers the volume of forest products purchased from Vermont. Those buyers have been asked to attribute their purchases by county of origin since 1976. (Prior to that time, volumes were reported as if the county of the reporting mill or buyer was the county of origin of the wood. By the early 1970s, it was apparent that the forest products economy was regional.) There is no statutory requirement that any mill or buyer report any information. These businesses do so voluntarily and reliably, every year.
After a steady decline from 1948, harvest began to increase again in 1972, and that trend has continued to the present. The ups and downs from year to year are characteristic of forest product markets. If data could be graphed on a quarterly basis, even greater variability would be seen, showing that forest product markets are volatile on cycles often shorter than annual.
In 1948, the ratio of low-quality wood (pulpwood and industrial fuel wood) to higher-quality forest products (sawlogs and veneer logs) harvested was 27 percent to 73 percent. This ratio held through the mid-1970s. In 1976, whole-tree chipping began in Vermont, which added more low-quality volume to the harvest mix. The ratio that year shifted to 32 percent low-quality to 68 percent high-quality. The ratio increased to as high as 52 percent low-quality to 48 percent high-quality in 1993, after which time it has declined. The increase in the volume of low-quality harvest stems from the demand for pulpwood from Vermont, the demand for hardwood pulp in the region, and the continued increase in whole-tree chipping for pulpwood and industrial fuel wood.
The periodic forest inventory does not provide published data on the commercial quality in the inventory in terms that make comparison with harvest data meaningful. Finding markets for lower-quality wood has long been a problem for landowners, loggers, and foresters. The ability of landowners to sell lower-quality wood is an important part of having a quality thinning job in their forests.
Were fortunate that the ecological forces of nature reforested our hillsides as quickly as they did, and that the great majority of Vermonters who own forest land and work in the woods today possess an ethic of stewardship. With their continued good work, our forests will remain an essential part of the Vermont economy and our rural culture well into the future.
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