Logging on or off? Hartford Town Forest sparks debate over active management

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2022 9:46:34 PM
Modified: 5/27/2022 9:46:36 PM

HARTFORD — A proposed logging project in the Hartford Town Forest has sparked criticism and debate over whether or not logging can benefit a forest.

“We want to accelerate diversity,” said Thomas Kahl, the chair of the Conservation Commission. “Climate change is in a decade. Old growth takes too long naturally, and we need a resilient forest.” A diverse forest is a resilient forest, he said.

Members of the Conservation Commission argue that selective logging on about 45 acres of the 423-acre Hartford Town Forest will benefit the forest. Yet some residents argue that logging will weaken the forest, release carbon into the atmosphere and mar the aesthetics of a popular recreation resource.

“Money is the lowest of our goals. Really, it’s diversity,” Kahl said at the May 5 forest walk that the commission organized. It was the latest in a series of public outreach events.

Other parts of the forest, including the 142-acre Hurricane Forest Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the town forest, will be left untouched to develop into old growth.

AJ Follensbee, the Windsor and Orange county forester, led the tour to explain the technicalities of the forest plan. He developed the management plan with the Conservation Commission.

“We’re trying to turn the two-aged habitat into multiple to be more natural,” he explained. “… Often no management is best. We’re trying to mimic nature.” But logging, he said, will speed up the process of natural succession.

The forest as it stands is far from its natural state, Follensbee explained. The town heavily logged it for profit in the 1980s, he said. Before that timber harvest, it was an even-aged forest that had grown up from cleared agricultural lands after the town acquired it in the 19th century. Farming left the soil starved for nutrients.

Follensbee plans to leave branches and treetops on the forest floor to fence out the deer that would eat at the young growth. Eventually, the woody material left behind will decay into organic matter that will enrich the soil.

Managing the town forest is also an opportunity to educate landowners whose land is in current use on how they can log in a sustainable way that protects wildlife and forest health, a goal that is important to members of the Conservation Commission, Kahl said.

Selective logging is designed to benefit forest health, Follensbee said. For example, many pines in the forest are infected with white needle cast, as he explained in an educational video about the planned harvest. He proposes thinning some of the weakest pines, which will increase air circulation through the forest and hinder the disease’s spread through the trees. The healthiest trees will remain. The thinned canopy will let the sun reach young saplings and warm the forest floor, nurturing young hardwoods that would diversify the forest.

Throughout the forest walk, Follensbee emphasized that he did not mark any trees to make the project more desirable to a logger. “I had a hard time selling this,” he said.

And the contract with the logger isn’t signed yet, added Angela Emerson, a member of the Conservation Commission. Long View Forest, a Hartland-based logger, said it would take on the project, but that was months ago.

Several of the approximately 18 people who attended the forest walk expressed concern with the project.

“Time is what is needed to get to old growth. Leave it,” said Jeff Arnold, an outspoken critic of the project and the chair of Hartford Tree Board. “Logging makes a mess of the forest,” he added.

He and other critics argue that, left alone, the forest would diversify. Old trees would fall, and disease would take out others, opening room for new growth. And when an old tree is cut, the carbon it stored is released into the environment, exacerbating the climate crisis, they argue.

“Why are we cutting this public forest? It doesn’t make sense,” Arnold said in an interview. Private landowners face pressure to log to keep their land in current use and reduce their taxes, but the town should keep its trees standing, he argues.

Cheryl Joy Lipton, of Chester, Vt., questioned the ecological benefits of logging. Critics of the project asked Lipton, a landscape designer and ecologist, to join the forest walk. Trees dying naturally is better for wildlife, she argued; for example, the long-eared bat roosts in dying trees, she said. And while Follensbee emphasized the goal of growing big trees fast, she said slow-growing trees are stronger and more resilient.

Others worried that leaving branches on the ground would make the forest vulnerable to fire, but Follensbee reassured them that the branches will break down quickly and keep moisture in the forest. And intense fires are unlikely in the wet climate of the Northeast, he said.

Chuck Wooster joined the tour to learn how he could better actively manage his land. Wooster, who also farms at Sunrise Farm, owns about 500 acres of forestland in Hartford, and it is in current use. His priorities for his land are wildlife and recreation, and he appreciated a chance to learn from a professional managing a similar mix of trees.

Follensbee and the town “have a high standard for public land,” he said.

The Conservation Commission plans to present the contract with Long View to the Selectboard at a meeting on June 14. Until the contract is signed, the plans remain tentative.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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