Digging in to rescue a beloved forest parcel

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


For the Valley News

Published: 07-13-2023 4:35 PM

I love to go hiking. I’m always game for a walk in the woods. There are so many ferns and flowers and mosses and rocks to identify and so many birds and frogs to hear. We now have a new place on the edge of town for hiking and nature walks. The trails will be finished soon, and it is open for everyone to enjoy. This community forest belongs to the town of Strafford — and to the town of Sharon too.

Two hundred fifty-six acres of conserved woods, wetlands, and pastures — two towns in two counties with two different foresters sharing one community forest. A unique arrangement.

Before becoming The Ashley Community Forest, this was just another parcel of land being bought up by a developer from Utah, David Hall, for a proposed 20,000-person mini-city to have been placed where four small agrarian towns met. But David was surprised and eventually derailed by community resistance. The Ashley piece, which was central to the development, was purchased and conserved with donations plus support from three local non-profit organizations.

After Hall abandoned his project, the Ashley Community Forest was donated to the towns of Sharon and Strafford.

A five-member board, two from each town, and one independent meets monthly, working out how to manage the forest to restore it to a healthy ecosystem, how to welcome the community in, how to make it a hub of natural history, education, and recreation.

The forest management plan calls for “treatment” of invasive plants including the barberry that has infested a large area of open ground left after an unregulated logging job some decades ago.

Species that evolved on distant continents often leave behind old enemies that kept them in check. Growing vigorously in their new home, these “invasives” green out earlier, and stay green longer, outcompeting native flowers and shrubs, and even young trees. Our wildlife evolved alongside our native plants— they are symbiotically entwined.

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Treatment of aggressive plants can mean chemicals or mechanical pulling. In this case, because of how pervasive the barberry understory had become, chemical treatment was suggested. A vocal group of community members resisted the use of herbicides in the forest. And the board listened — for this is a community project. So now on Saturdays, groups of brave barberry diggers, often meeting each other for the first time, carrying shovels and forks, wearing heavy gloves and hats, doused with bug goo hike deep out into the woods once a month digging and pulling those thorny shrubs, hanging them from trees so they air out and die.

When you stop pulling and straighten your back for a while, you can see the crew bending and digging, and in addition to the occasional groan, you might hear conversations about plant intelligence, Greek and Roman philosophers, plagues, books, and movies. The labor is hard, yet the company is delightful. A forest community, making a bad thing good.