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Fairlee residents at odds over seeing town forest for the trees, or not

  • Tom Henry, of Fairlee, makes his way uphill on a loop through the Fairlee Town Forest on Wednesday, June 30, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Irma and John Lange, seen in a 1998 photograph, donated 750 acres to the Town of Fairlee in the 1970s in the memory of their son William, who died by suicide at age 17. The land now makes up roughly half of the Fairlee Town Forest. Photo Courtesy of Peter Lange Photo Courtesy of Peter Lange

  • A temporary gate to discourage traffic blocks the Cross Mountain Trail toward Chestnut Landing in the Fairlee, Vt., Town Forest on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. A forester’s report on the town forest released earlier this year details damage caused by motorized and non-motorized recreation to trails and logging roads and makes management recommendations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Rivendell ninth-graders and local volunteers dig holes to plant chestnut trees in the Fairlee Town Forest in Fairlee, Vt. on May 4, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) valley news file photograph — Sarah Priestap

  • A forester’s report recommends that this culvert on Howdy's Trail in the Fairlee Town Forest be replaced with a bridge or ford with consultation from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Wednesday, June 29, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Signs mark trails through the Fairlee, Vt., Town Forest on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. A forester’s report released earlier this year details damage caused by motorized and non-motorized recreation to the forest’s trails and logging roads and makes management recommendations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A logging road off of Knox Road in the Fairlee, Vt., Town Forest gives a view to Mount Cube in Orford, N.H., on Wednesday, June 30, 2022. A forester’s report recommends placing a gate and parking area at the base of the road where it enters the forest to restrict access and prevent erosion on the logging road. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 7/2/2022 6:37:21 PM
Modified: 7/2/2022 6:34:41 PM

After their 17-year-old son died by suicide in 1968, longtime Fairlee residents John and Irma Lange found a way to honor his memory and give their adopted hometown a gift for posterity.

In 1980, the couple handed 750 acres of forestland over to the town in the name of their late son William H. Lange. The tract more than doubled the size of the Fairlee Town Forest, which got its start in the early 1940s when the town acquired more than 700 acres in a tax collector’s sale.

Today the town forest consists of 1,573 acres, stretching from almost the shoreline of Lake Morey to neighboring West Fairlee. The forest’s vast network of trails and logging roads are used for a myriad recreational activities.

And therein lies the rub.

Townspeople disagree about what forms of recreation are appropriate. For some, the forest is best suited for low-impact activities such as hiking, birdwatching and snowshoeing. Others see a forest made for exploring and hunting on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles.

Logging is another lightning rod.

A forester’s report issued earlier this year offered a sobering assessment.

“There are problems within the Fairlee Town Forest that have been created by use, lack of management, and lack of maintenance over a long period of time,” wrote Markus Bradley, a forester with Redstart Natural Resource Management, of Bradford, Vt.

Citing the need to curb erosion and damage to sensitive wetlands, Bradley’s report called for erecting steel gates to close off some trails to motorized vehicles.

Water bars — channels dug into sloping logging roads and trails to prevent erosion — are sorely needed in many parts of the forest, according to Bradley.

“All forms of recreation can have a negative impact on roads and trails, depending upon volume of use and the time of year,” Bradley wrote. “Due to this, all forms of recreation must be managed.”

How did Fairlee, a town of about 1,000 residents, get so tangled up in the management and upkeep of the forest, one of its most valuable natural resources?

Some people point to the town’s Forest Board.

Appointed by the Selectboard to five-year terms, its five members are charged with managing the woodlands.

“Their hearts are in the right place and they work hard, but it’s always been a little bit of a fiefdom,” said Jay Barrett, an architect who spent 24 years on the Selectboard before retiring in 2019. “It’s a very tight-knit group.”

Managing recreational activities hasn’t been at the top of the Forest Board’s priority list, said Barrett, who now lives in Greensboro, Vt..

In the 1980s and 1990s, the forest was heavily logged for high-grade timber, Bradley said in an interview.

Logging has been seen as a way to pay for repairing forest roads and maintaining trails without burdening property owners.

Fairlee being a small town, “we don’t have a lot of taxpayers,” Forest Board Chairman Dan Ludwig said. It’s important that taxpayers have “never had to pay for the forest,” he added.

Forest factions

In his role as Orange County Forester, David Paganelli assisted the Fairlee Forest Board for years with overseeing logging and organizing timber sales. But he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with board members, he said in a recent interview.

“Their members drove ATVs and hunted. That was their principal use of the parcel as I remember,” Paganelli said. “I was instructed to keep roads open for truck traffic and ATV use.”

After he wouldn’t go along with their plan to conduct a wood chipping operation inside the forest, the board cut ties with him in 2010, Paganelli said. Chipping, which involves cutting low-quality trees to use for biomass fuel, requires bringing heavy equipment weighing up to 65,000 pounds into a forest.

“I was concerned about root damage from that big equipment,” he said.

Paganelli’s differences with the board went beyond wood chipping.

In a 2012 email exchange with Fairlee resident Lynne Fitzhugh, Paganelli wrote that the board “refused to properly water bar their road system after timber sales, believing that it made truck traffic difficult for hunters. The result is that the roads eroded between every logging job.”

Fitzhugh contacted Paganelli after she and a neighbor became concerned about “excessive logging” in the town forest. Their concerns led to the forming of Friends of Fairlee Forest, a group that grew to about 40 people, in 2012.

Fitzhugh and her husband, William, an archeologist with the Smithsonian Institution, moved to Fairlee from the Washington, D.C., area in the early 2000s.

In her view, the forest board consists of a “nice group of people” who have an “old-fashioned way” of looking at their role.

A board meeting in September 2018 offered a glimpse into what critics see as an old-boys network. Then-chairman David Matthews wanted the board to develop a job description for its future members.

To be effective, a board member must have “access to an ATV, chainsaw skills and the necessary tools,” Matthews said.

“I guess that’s why they never wanted me,” Fitzhugh said, breaking into a laugh.

Friends of Fairlee Forest designed trail maps and put up signage. It organized walking tours.

Not everyone in town, however, appreciated the group’s efforts. In an email exchange with a Valley News reporter, Ludwig said the group “posted a trails map of the Fairlee Forest that shows trails and roads running across private properties with the implication that they are open to the public.

“They did this without any consultation or permission from either the Forest Board or the Selectboard and certainly no disclaimer that they are not a government body.”

Rather than battling the Forest Board on its turf, Fitzhugh and other “Friends” decided it was best for the group to go dormant.

“It’s a small town, we didn’t want it to become more divisive,” she said.

But she still wanted to help. In late 2020, she approached the Selectboard about having Fairlee apply for a federal grant that could bring in more than $52,000 to repair recreational trails in the forest. Under the program, the town had to come up with $13,000 in matching funds.

Fitzhugh, who worked in fundraising and development for cultural organizations before retiring, offered to put together the grant application. The Selectboard gave its OK.

The Forest Board wasn’t keen on the idea. In February 2021, it wrote to the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, which was involved in the grant process.

“We feel that the ‘Friends,’ having been unhappy with the results of their attempts to change the direction of the (Town) Forest, are using this application as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to introduce their agenda and thwart the democratic process,” the board stated.

In the letter to the state’s recreation trails program manager, the Forest Board said Fairlee residents and taxpayers were largely supportive of its management practices designed to “maintain the Forest and improve wildlife habitat.”

The Friends group had different ideas, the board said. One of its goals was to “draw people in to use the forest road system,” which would lead to inexperienced hikers getting lost in the large woodland tract of rough terrain, the board wrote.

Fairlee is “currently ill equipped to handle back country rescue and we are concerned about potential liability if we promote the Forest as a recreational destination without the assets to deal with lost or injured visitor.” the board warned.

Shortly thereafter, the Selectboard withdrew the grant application.

Hiking trails aside, the board needs to develop a sound stewardship plan, Fitzhugh said. The forest has great potential as an outdoor classroom for environmental education programs, she said.

“The forest is a marvelous resource,” Fitzhugh said. “There are so many ways that it could be used that are not destructive.

‘Let it be a forest’

In the ongoing Town Forest saga, Bill Weale has taken on the role of antagonist.

Weale, who has lived in Fairlee for 44 years, has peppered town and state officials with public records requests. The documents, which go back to when the Langes and town officials began discussing the land transfer in 1978, are posted on his website, fogeypower.com.

A retired home builder who graduated from Dartmouth College in 1970, Weale has spent more than two years walking the land and taking detailed notes of damage to hiking trails, logging roads and the forest, in general. In his younger days, he hunted grouse and deer in the forest

“I’m not a tree hugger,” he said, pointing out his lengthy career in a business literally built on harvesting trees. (Along with building houses, he developed and started what is now the Fogg’s hardware stores and lumberyards in Fairlee and Norwich.)

His outdoor interests were sparked by the work-study job he had at Dartmouth with the college’s forester.

“I just loved being in the woods,” he said.

Weale has come to see the Fairlee Town Forest as a public asset. “Just like the school building and the Town Hall,” he said.

But he contends Forest Board members, past and present, along with other town officials, have “treated the public asset as a private club.”

In his research, Weale came across documents pertaining to the 1980 deal between the Langes and the town.

The large parcel was valued at $158,500. Under a U.S. Department of Interior conservation and recreation service program, the federal government and state offered to buy the land from the Langes, if the town chipped in 20% of the purchase price.

But the Langes had no intention of taking money from Fairlee taxpayers. They worked it so the town’s share of $31,700 came out of their pocket.

Before the deal was finalized, Vermont environmental officials made sure the town recognized the $126,800 the state and federal governments were putting up was for the “creation of a public outdoor recreation facility.”

As for logging, “it must not be a harvesting program for the sake of harvesting timber but rather for the sake of enhancing the recreation value of the land,” the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation informed the Fairlee Selectboard in 1979.

Any money generated from logging is “incidental and cannot be considered the primary purpose of the harvesting program,” the state said.

With the Forest Board often putting logging ahead of recreation, Weale argues, the town has violated its agreement with the state and federal governments.

The Selectboard has taken Weale’s allegations seriously, Town Adminstrator Tad Nunez said. The town reached out to state environmental officials for guidance.

In 2020, Rick Dyer, a forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation who deals with water quality issues, toured the forest. He found water bars that he suspected had been knocked over by ATVs or dirt bikes. Foot traffic also exacerbates erosion, but heavier vehicles have greater impact, he said in a recent interview.

Fairlee officials have shown him that they’re committed to improving how the forest is managed, Dyer said.

“They are progressing with all the recommendations that I had made,” he said. “It’s slow, but moving. It’s a big forest.”

Meanwhile, Weale continues to allege town officials have, among other things, allowed “environmental abuse” of the forest to go on for decades.

Some of the work has taken place in “terrain so steep and soils so thin that industrial logging equipment shouldn’t have been put there,” he said.

Over the years, the Forest Board has conducted a number of timber sales that haven’t panned out financially, Weale said.

Meanwhile, the board has no plans for more logging anytime soon, Ludwig said. The price for timber is simply too low to market.

Ludwig, who was appointed to the Forest Board in 2020, dismissed Weale as a “frequent source of mostly baseless claims” about the forest and its management.

Weale shared emails with the Valley News from a year ago that showed he was asked to prepare a summary of his findings to the Selectboard, which he did.

By February, however, the board had apparently heard enough. After consulting the town attorney, the board wrote to Weale.

“The Board has concluded that it is no longer advantageous to continue trying to collaborate with you over matters regarding the management of the Town Forest given your baseless, accusatory, and threatening correspondences pertaining to Fairlee Town Forest management,” the Feb. 18 letter stated.

Weale remains undeterred. This spring, he reached out to Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer, requesting his office investigate what he believes is a failure by the town to live up to the 1980 agreement.

After reviewing documents that Weale sent him, Hoffer told the Valley News that he’d asked Forests, Parks and Recreation to assess the situation and send its findings to the town.

From his reading of the documents that spell out the 1980 agreement “there’s an expectation this is a resource that will be well-managed,” Hoffer said in a phone interview last week. “If not, the state is on the hook.”

As of last week, the town hadn’t heard from Forests, Parks and Recreation, Nunez said.

In the meantime, Fairlee will work piece by piece through the recommendations Bradley made in his five-page trails report, Ludwig said. (Redstart, the private company that Bradley works for, isn’t currently under contract with the town. Since it first hired Redstart in 2014, the town has paid the company nearly $22,000.)

The Forest Board is catching up on deferred maintenance, while trying keep costs to taxpayers low, Ludwig said.

Repairs are expected to cost about $65,000, which could be paid for by a combination of taxpayer money and town forest reserve funds, according to Nunez.

From what he’s seen and read, Weale said the repair work could run $250,000 or more.

Public input

According to the town’s website, the Forest Board usually holds three public meetings annually. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, it has scaled back to meeting publicly once a year.

In an attempt to get a better idea about how residents want the forest to be used and maintained, Nunez brought in the Upper Valley Trails Alliance to conduct a public forum last November.

“The town has never not recognized public use of the lands,” Selectboard Chairman Peter Berger said in an interview with the Valley News prior to the forum. “The question is degree and how they’re maintained.”

In a separate interview, Ludwig said, “we want it to be a forest that everyone can enjoy rather than a park with groomed hiking trails.”

The forum attracted more than 70 people in person and via Zoom. Participants were asked to share their understanding of the current uses of the forest.

Hiking was the top answer, followed by hunting/trapping, ATV/four-wheeling and snowmobiling. Logging/timber management ranked ahead of birdwatching, snowshoeing and mountain biking.

As informal as the survey was, it still reflected the vision John and Irma Lange had put forward more than 40 years earlier.

The Langes wanted their gift to be used for recreational activities, namely hunting, hiking, snowmobiling and ski touring.

Irma, a nurse, and John, a gifted mechanic who fixed everything from cars to jukeboxes, moved to Fairlee, where they built a house in 1952 and raised four sons. John served on the town’s School Board. The family was active in the volunteer fire department, FAST squad and Boy Scouts.

John and Irma raised strawberries and asparagus in their garden. They made dandelion wine and were avid birdwatchers.

The Langes were married for 67 years. Both were 90 when they died six months a part in 2005 and 2006.

“John and Irma were not perfect and had many hardships, but they always worked hard to contribute and get involved in positive ways to support and build a positive civic role in the community,” Peter Lange wrote in a letter about his parents that he sent to the Selectboard in February.

Lange, a retired Hanover High School teacher, still lives in Fairlee. He served for a number of years on the Forest Board, stepping down in 2018.

Lange wrote to the Selectboard in hopes that it might unite townspeople, he said in a brief phone interview.

As Lange wrote in the letter, “My parents wanted us all to enjoy the Fairlee forest land.”




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