For Town Forests, a Quiet Century of Regrowth

Saturday, May 23, 2015
At 1,822 feet , Wright’s Mountain is the highest point in Bradford, with commanding views east to Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire and west to the Waits River watershed. On an early spring morning the air is riot with bird song: the rapid fusilla de of oven birds, the twittering of warblers, the fluting of a thrush. The slopes are still littered with leaves from last fall, but new growth pokes up through the debris: Trout lilies, ginseng, wild sarsaparilla with its glossy brown leaves, the pale yellow drooping flower of sessile bellwort, and red trillium and painted trillium.

Wright’s Mountain and Devil’s Den, a network of shallow caves on the eastern side of Wright’s Mountain, comprise 517 acres of town-owned forest managed by the Bradford Conservation Commission. A sign at the western entrance to the Wright’s Mountain trail system, which is maintained by volunteers, reads “Bringing people and nature together.”

The Wright’s Mountain and Devil’s Den forest is one of 384 town forests in Vermont, which this year marks the centennial of the state’s Municipal Forest Act, legislation that permitted towns to acquire land for the primary purpose of reforestation, said Kate Forrer, who works in the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry program in Berlin, Vt., which is publicizing the centennial with events around the state.

Currently, more than 67,000 acres of forest land in Vermont are in the hands of 168 municipalities, some of which own more than one town forest ; lots range from as little as six acres to more than 1,000. “They really are such amazing places and there are so many neat examples around the state of how towns have used town forests,” Forrer said.

Although many Vermont and New Hampshire residents may have no clue what a town forest is, that may be changing, thanks to growing public awareness of the variety of purposes town forests serve, including timber harvesting, recreation and education, tourism and protection of watersheds and wildlife habitat.

“I think in the last couple of decades we’ve seen a renewed appreciation for town-owned land, and a recognition of the benefits that derive therefrom. Towns purchase land as a community asset to serve the community in the long term,” said Julie Renaud Evans, director of forests for the Northern Forestry Center in Concord.

On a steady climb to the top of Wright’s Mountain, Nancy Jones, chairwoman of Bradford’s Conservation Commission, stops to overturn a rotting log, ideal habitat for the red-backed salamander, which is common in Northeastern woodlands. She finds one, about 3 inches long with a shiny, orange-red stripe down its back. It’s still sluggish from the cold night, and doesn’t resist when she puts it in her palm, where it sits passively,

“I figured it would be there,” she said. A thriving population of these salamanders indicates a healthy biomass, she said. Jones has spent countless hours on Wright’s Mountain, not only as a conservation commissioner but also as a biology teacher at Oxbow Union High School leading science classes in the field, and as a recreational hiker.

At the top, where there is a cabin, Jones walks out on a ledge that looks south. From this height, the twists and turns of the Connecticut River Valley are apparent, as are the orderly patterns of plowed farmland. “I just so love this ridge,” she said.

Town forests are unique to New England, said Bob McCullough, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Vermont. The region “has an especially long tradition of owning woodlands that goes back to the 17th century,” he said. It was common for towns to set aside large parcels of woodland, which were logged to provide wood for a variety of purposes, including the building of meeting houses.

Because one of the first concerns of the early European settlers in New England was to clear land for cultivation, forests were cleared rapidly. The colonists did their job too well: “Many coastal regions became depleted quickly,” McCullough said.

Town records show that this was of concern to town officials throughout New England; they moved to protect forests held on common land, McCullough said. Settlers had brought with them principles of stewardship from England, although the rural land of England, already cleared for centuries, was dramatically different from the vast forests of New England. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, New England saw waves of clearing and planting forest, and clearing again; it’s rare to find old-growth forest in the region.

By the start of the 20th century, large areas of New England were denuded, and out of concern for depleted timberland, McCullough said, towns sought to create town forests.

New England towns already had a long-standing tradition of caring for their indigent populations at local “poor farms,” McCullough said. The poor farms often had wood lots, and early proponents of town forest legislation pointed to the way those wood lots brought in revenue to support the poor farms.

This was also the era of a burgeoning environmental and conservation movement, spurred on by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the foundation of professional forestry programs at universities. Primarily, though, town forests were seen as generators of predictable municipal revenue, McCullough said.

Typically, plantations in town forests, dating from the 1920s through the 1940s, consist of such fast-growing conifers as white pine, red pine and Scotch pine.

Many towns also used revenue from their forests to support local schools, McCullough said. Pennsylvania and New York were in the vanguard, McCullough said, passing town forest legislation in 1909 and 1912, respectively. Massachusetts and New Hampshire were the first New England states to pass town forest legislation, in 1913, followed by Vermont. Maine created legislation in 1927, Rhode Island in 1929 and Connecticut in 1939.

There are 284 towns in New Hampshire, said Evans, but no current inventory of how many town forests there are. Because of the state’s longstanding tradition of town or community forests, however, it’s likely that a good percentage of towns do own forest. And in the state’s northern tier, which is heavily forested, there are sizeable tracts of community forest.

The Coos County town of Errol, for example, is home to 13 Mile Woods Community Forest, more than 7,000 acres of land along the Androscoggin River that was purchased through a federal, state and local partnership. There are 10,000 acres in the Randolph, N.H., Community Forest, also in Coos County, which was created in 2001.

The ethos behind the Randolph Community Forest can be summed up, its website said, as “Public Ownership; Local Control; Protected Forever.”

The 1,055 acre Brushwood Community Forest in West Fairlee was created in 2009, after years of discussion, planning and fundraising. In 2004, a town-wide survey asked whether residents would support the creation of a town forest; 86 percent were in favor of the idea, said Patricia Ayres Crawford, who was part of a group in town that helped to raise $2 million to purchase land. The Brushwood Forest closed a gap between the Bradford and Fairlee town forests, so there is now contiguous habitat.

“It’s conserved and it won’t be developed,” said Crawford. “I know development needs to happen, but this preserves traditional recreational uses and logging. It’s a broader social good, and all that hard work the community put in is social capital.”

Both Wright’s Mountain and Brushwood are in Orange County, where the majority of forestland is still privately owned; in other Vermont counties, said Orange County forester Dave Paganelli, the federal and state governments own the bulk of forestland. The county is also notable because the soil is high in native calcium, which grows some of the best sugar maples; not just in Vermont, Paganelli said, but possibly in the world.

Wright’s Mountain has a mix of conifers and northern hardwoods, such as beech, hemlock and sugar maple; because it has been consistently logged it’s a younger forest, said Paganelli. The most recent logging, said Jones, happened between eight and 10 years ago. The revenue of $16,000, after a vote at Town Meeting, was funneled back into the “costs of maintaining and managing the forest.”

Brushwood Community Forest has more pine, oak and hemlock; its topography is not as steep as Wright’s Mountain and the old cellar holes, cemetery and old mill site speak to its history, when it was largely cleared and inhabited.

The importance of such forests, which are mixes of natural and managed woodlands, isn’t to be underestimated, Paganelli said. “The longer you own something, and the longer it’s in stable management, the longer the forest has to recover.”

It can take generations to restore a forest, which may have been logged anywhere from 50 to 150 years ago, to a healthy balance. Throughout Vermont, the reforestation that’s occurred since 1900 means that woodlands are “in a process of rebuilding” after hundreds of years of clearing, Paganelli said. Town forests contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem.

How the effects of climate change — invasive plant and insect species, levels of precipitation or drought, more extremes in temperature — will affect the forests of northern New England 50 to 100 years from now can’t be known in microscopic detail, but change they will, Paganelli said.

“A forest is complex, and our land use history is complex,” he added. “There’s always a context. A forest is not just what it is today but what it was, and what it could be one day.”

There will be “A Race to the Top” of Wright’s Mountain on June 7 as part of the National Trails Day Event. There is a 3 1/2 mile race for adults, and a 1 1/2 mile race at a lower level of the mountain for those 13 and under. Proceeds will go to the Friends of Wright’s Mountain Fund. For registration and information go to bradfordconservation.org/race.

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