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Conserving a Treasured Valley

  • Forester Paul Harwood, left, stands with John Hemenway at a log landing on Hemenway's land in Strafford, Vt., on June 27, 2013. Hemenway has led a long effort to conserve Taylor Valley, a tract of almost entirely forested land where Strafford, Tunbridge, Chelsea and Veshire meet. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Forester Paul Harwood, left, stands with John Hemenway at a log landing on Hemenway's land in Strafford, Vt., on June 27, 2013. Hemenway has led a long effort to conserve Taylor Valley, a tract of almost entirely forested land where Strafford, Tunbridge, Chelsea and Veshire meet. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Hemenway watches a hawk fly over his land in Strafford. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    John Hemenway watches a hawk fly over his land in Strafford. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Forester Paul Harwood, left, stands with John Hemenway at a log landing on Hemenway's land in Strafford, Vt., on June 27, 2013. Hemenway has led a long effort to conserve Taylor Valley, a tract of almost entirely forested land where Strafford, Tunbridge, Chelsea and Veshire meet. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • John Hemenway watches a hawk fly over his land in Strafford. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Nearly every day John Hemenway hops on his bicycle and rides west from his house in Strafford along the back road to Tunbridge until he reaches a sharp right turn at Taylor Valley Road. Hemenway owns roughly 3,200 acres of working timber land in Taylor Valley, where the towns of Chelsea, Strafford, Tunbridge and Vershire intersect.

A dense tangle of sugar maple, ash, poplar and yellow birch, Taylor Valley is one of the most heavily forested areas in Orange County, and sits on some of the sweetest soil in the state of Vermont. The Ompompanoosuc River begins here as a small trickle, and moose, bear, coyote and deer wander through freely.

From the Strafford side, Taylor Valley Road climbs some three miles and then turns into a pitted, rocky Class 4 road, fit only for hikers and vehicles tough enough to make it through. After a half-mile, the trail forks: The right branch leads to Vershire, and the left to Chelsea. The roads traverse steep ledges and pass beaver ponds and streams that, with the recent torrents of rain, gallop along like race horses at the track.

Taylor Valley has no strictly defined perimeter, but is marked, in some ways, by what it’s not. A satellite image of the area shows a large, dark, Rohrshach-like blot of forest, seemingly empty of human development. In all, Taylor Valley comprises nearly 18,000 acres, of which some 3,200 acres are conserved, 2,400 of which belong to Hemenway.

Since he bought his first parcel of land in the valley in 1950, paying $4,000 for 1,000 acres, Hemenway, now 89, has been the driving factor in trying to secure protection for the valley as a whole. His efforts are now buttressed by the non-profit Taylor Valley Conservation Project, of which he is a board member. His work in Taylor Valley has been cited twice for its excellence with the designation, Vermont Tree Farm of the Year — in 1992 and again this year.

“It’s been quite an adventure,” said Hemenway of his decades-long investment. He spoke with an air of boyish, unmistakable satisfaction, as if he’d stumbled 63 years ago on an old treasure chest buried in his backyard.

What makes Taylor Valley such a rich area for study are its natural resources and history. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at it from the air, or even from the road, there were at least 30 farms here dating from the early 1800s into the early 20th century, as well as schools and mills. The buildings are gone, but the cellar holes, foundations, stone walls, and cemeteries are still tucked away in the woods, where hikers and loggers stumble on them from time to time.

“It’s a real treasure of cultural and archaeological significance,” said Paul Harwood, a consulting forester from Tunbridge who has worked with Hemenway for three years managing his timber land. “As a forester I love to protect those resources.”

What makes Taylor Valley exceptionally well-suited to growing trees, particularly sugar maples, is its limestone, ph-neutral, nutrient-rich substrate, Harwood said. Timber buyers from all over the world seek out Orange County sugar maple because it has fewer defects and less mineral streaking, he said.

Like much of the rest of the state, Taylor Valley reverted from agricultural land to forest as the farms went out during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the people who’d lived there moved on. Even up until 40 years ago, Hemenway said, it was possible to see open hillside in Taylor Valley. But no longer.

The forest is so deep here, and the roads so few, that together they seem to act as a natural barrier to human encroachment. Because that has rarely stopped speculators from development, Hemenway has gone to great pains to gather together a like-minded group of land-owners who want to keep it as it is through conservation easements. He has also set up a limited liability corporation (LLC) to manage the area in the future, as his four children don’t have the same passion for it that he has.

Hemenway visits Taylor Valley as often as he can because it has been his special project. “My baby,” he said. He first came to the region in the 1940s because his wife’s family owned a house in Strafford. He maintained an apartment outside Boston until two years ago when he decided he wanted to live in Strafford year-round so he could be closer to Taylor Valley.

“I was very happy to come up here full time,” he said. Nearby, his daughter Phoebe Armstrong, visiting from Virginia, looked slightly dubious. As Hemenway gets ready to leave with Harwood to make a driving tour of Taylor Valley, she reminds him to bring his cane. “I’m told always to bring my stick,” Hemenway said, grabbing it from its place by the front door.

Justin Smith Morrill, the U.S. Senator who introduced legislation in 1862 establishing the land grant colleges, was born and grew up in the house where Hemenway lives. The McCreary and Hemenway families kept intact the house’s structure, small rooms and low ceilings so that entering it feels a little like walking into the 19th century. The Morrill outhouse can still be seen through the kitchen window.

Hemenway is a Massachusetts man, with the habit of dropping his “rs,” which renders his alma mater Harvard, Hahvahd. Courtly in manner, he still dresses in a jacket and dress shirt, even to go out to the woods, although he does forswear a tie.

He grew up in Canton, south of Boston, near the Blue Hills Reservation, one of this country’s largest conserved parks in a metropolitan area. His New England forebears include one of the co-founders of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a sea captain who died of appendicitis in Cuba and whose body was stored in a rum barrel until the ship could reach Boston.

Hemenway enlisted in the Army in 1943 and ended up in the 10th Mountain Division. But before he could leave with the division for Europe, where they fought in Italy, Hemenway was hospitalized with chicken pox. He transferred into an infantry division and then ended up as a combat engineer, landing in Okinawa right after the Japanese surrender.

He remembers walking up the steps to the imperial palace in Tokyo, and turning his head to see, with no small astonishment, his older brother, who had served in the Navy, coming up the steps at the same time. They hadn’t seen each other in three years and it was by chance — or some other force — that they met as they did.

After the war, “like so many other people I was feeling my way and I didn’t have any idea of what I was going to do,” Hemenway said.

He and Phoebe McReary, who’d been a student at Radcliffe, and whom he met at Harvard, were married in 1948. Although he’d studied anthropology in college he took a position as a stockbroker, a job he performed out of a sense of duty rather than pleasure. But then the director of the New England Forest Foundation, where Hemenway was serving as a treasurer, died suddenly in 1953, Hemenway was pulled in.

“Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be director,” he was told.

The New England Forest Foundation began in 1944, but its origins are rooted in the late 19th century and the conservation movement, when such naturalists and foresters as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot expressed concern for the health of America’s forests, which had been over-cut and clear-cut in some areas to the point of extirpation. New England, of course, had almost nothing left in the way of old-growth or original forest because of the patterns of cleared settlement since the early 1600s.

“I had no formal training at all, but I picked it up,” said Hemenway of the beginning of his tenure at the New England Forest Foundation. In the meantime, he’d befriended fellow Bostonian Frederick Taylor, who with his brother Efford, had bought a large parcel of the valley in the early 1900s, intending to use it both for timber and for summer camps that would attract tourists. The valley takes its name from them.

Hemenway decided to focus his energy on timber investment, and conservation of the valley. “I knew it had potential because ... it was a great area for hardwoods. All the properties I acquired were in hardwoods, many depleted or coming back from farming. It was very much more open then than it is now. The hills were bare; they’d been grazed and overgrazed with sheep and cattle, and the farmers were going out fast.”

Hemenway had learned through his work at the New England Forest Foundation that a healthy forest has to be maintained. “There’s constant management. You can’t just have things as they are.”

While most of us might assume that the healthiest forest is one that is left untouched by humans, the opposite is often true, Harwood said.

Many forests can grow and thrive without disturbance for hundreds of years, Harwood said. But if you are going to invest in timber land, it “takes decades and continuous ownership to get” a forest vital enough that it can regenerate itself, serve as wildlife habitat, and be healthy enough to be logged.

The goal is to grow what’s called an uneven or irregular forest, one in which different trees reach maturity at different stages, to avoid producing a monoculture. The management plan for Taylor Valley calls for woodlots to be harvested every 15 to 20 years, Hemenway said. Logging crews also improve roads and maintain boundary markers.

“You’re managing trees with the same interests and goals as farmers but over a longer time frame,” Harwood said. “It takes people with vision. One of the problems we have in Vermont is that land changes hands in less than 10 years. Continuity is a real problem in forest management.”

“There’s a harvest cut and an improvement cut,” Hemenway said. “We combine them, so taking out defective trees or culling trees is a major step in effective forest management.”

Nature takes care of seeding the forest. And judicious management helps it along the way, although there are always those catastrophes that can’t be anticipated, such as the Hurricane of 1938, which decimated the Taylor Valley forest, and the 1998 ice storm, which also brought down trees all over New England.

After the ice storm, Hemenway and the loggers who worked for him went in to try to salvage what they could. Hemenway wasn’t sure whether the forest would recover, or if it did, how quickly. “It’s amazing how resilient nature is. With some stands we threw up our hands, but nature came back.”

Out along Taylor Valley Road, he and Harwood stop to examine what Harwood calls a staging area, a cleared, open space where the loggers bring timber before trucking it out to regional saw mills.

Once loggers have finished a job, they build water bars that look like little dams and that divert water off the roads. They also reseed the ground with grasses and wildflowers that draw wildlife. “Open areas are great for diversity,” Hemenway said. Both animals and birds like to frequent land at the edge of forest.

Hemenway needs almost no excuse to head into Taylor Valley. “It’s such beautiful country. I love the fields but also the woodlands,” he said. He’s taken to heart Thoreau’s injunction in Walden to imbibe “the tonic of wildness.” Hemenway has been shrewd enough and lucky enough to make it his life’s work.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.