For any generation, it can be difficult to imagine that the world of the past was so radically different than the present. Here in Vermont, with our rolling farm fields and forested mountains, the landscape appears
healthy. Because the northeast region has the built-in resilience of abundant precipitation and a temperate climate, the land has recovered to such a degree that, unless you study the land-use history, it is not manifestly evident that European settlement brought about near ecological collapse.
The human-driven devastation wrought upon the North Woods from 1750 to 1850 was the natural disaster equivalent of a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, forest fire, and flood—all rolled into one. The wholesale destruction of the ancient forest began in earnest with the Merino sheep boom of 1810 and ended with the felling of the last old-growth stands in the mid 20th century. An adult Abenaki person still alive in 1850 had witnessed their entire world undone. With the exception of tiny remnants, all the woods see now are regrowth, and in many cases, the trees have been harvested two or even three times.
It is estimated that fully one-half of Vermont’s soils have eroded away since the 18th century. Forest ecologists estimate that if you let a New England farm field go fallow, it takes a natural succession of about 120 years to re-establish a healthy soil biome, but even that will be but a pale shadow of the mature complex food web that once existed under the bowers of the ancient giants. The diverse deciduous and evergreen forests that blanketed the hills and basins of our region were a species of super-organism and the keystone species that bound all this biodiversity together were the mycorrhizal fungi. These trees could live 300-500 years and were enormous—with red oaks and hard maples at 150 feet and white pines reaching 200 feet or more. Hardwoods could have boles 9 feet in diameter. But all this biomass above ground was dwarfed by more than 60% of the total—the food web underground. For all the tons of carbon held in the trunks and branches—the real long-term stable carbon was built up over centuries in a substrata of deep humus. That is the carbon bank our farmers are still drawing on.
Worldwide, 50% of the carbon stored in a forest is held by the top 1% of the biggest trees (in VT it is estimated at 33% because of the relative youth of regrowth). New findings show that, although sequestration is most rapid in young trees, the amount of carbon storage is greatest from the growth period of 50 years to 150 years and continues after that. There are innumerable benefits accruing to old forests in terms of healthy landscape function and biodiversity—not to mention the aesthetics. You simply can’t put a dollar value on the recreational benefits of an area like Telephone Gap (an area in the Green Mountain National Forest where some parcels are slated for clear-cut and shelterwood cuts in the current Forest Service plan). (Shelterwood is a “treatment” that harvests most of the trees but typically leaves about 12 mature trees per acre to act as seed trees for regeneration.) These are places that can begin to heal your soul if you let them.
Over the course of the 20th century, as farmland was abandoned, our forest cover returned to 80% of the land base. However, in the last ten years, the tide has turned again and we are now losing an estimated 1150 acres of forest every year, mainly due to development. Clear-cutting and fragmentation also increasingly threaten habitat for a wide swathe of our wildlife dependent on deep forest and corridors to thrive.
At the same time, there is growing recognition that our forests are one of our greatest assets to mitigate and even reverse the worst effects of abrupt climate change. There is a promising approach to management taking hold in our region called Ecological Forest Management. This comprises practices that aim for the complexity of canopy and varied tree age range found in old forests. It includes identifying legacy trees, establishing gaps, freeing mast trees, leaving snags and standing dead, and more.
Although managing for old-growth characteristics while still harvesting timber reduces yields when compared to a typical selective commercial cutting, the real-world benefits of carbon sequestration, infiltration and retention of water, and restoration of biodiversity, far outweigh the loss. 70% of our forest is in family ownership. We need to understand the forest as a system and grant incentives to woodland owners who manage for long-term health and adaptability. This doesn’t have to entail the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome. We can sustain a local harvest while managing for enhanced
complexity. In fact, the promotion of ecological forestry could help jump-start a “localvore” movement in the timber and wood products industries. After all, do we really want new decks and home renovations to be built from old-growth lumber imported from British Columbia? If we really care about our own forests we need to reduce waste and over-consumption.
The current prevalent practices of shelterwood and clear cuts may have made sense in our region in the 20th century but with the advent of climate change, with flash droughts, extreme precipitation events, wind shears, invasive pathogens and pests, we have no guarantee that regeneration will occur on such sites as it once could reasonably be expected to do.
We can protect and restore our public lands through proforestation. Let’s unite with President Biden’s “30×30” initiative and call for the establishment of 30% “forever wild” designation of forest lands in Vermont by 2030. We can begin by permanently protecting all the public land within the boundaries of state and national forests. We should also ask our legislators to place a moratorium on new biomass
projects for heat and energy. Weatherization of homes and subsidies for thermal heat pumps could bring us better gains without further environmental destruction. Let’s ensure that Ecological Forest Management becomes a required practice of the Current Use tax abatement program and makes re-wilding and proforestation accepted practices for restoring bio-diversity and building up our strategic carbon reserves.
We are accustomed to thinking of forest managers in terms of the output of their operations— the number of board feet harvested. But to squarely address abrupt climate change, we need to match expectations for production with management aimed at restoration of the carbon cycle. Restoration of the carbon cycle leads to restoration of hydrologic cycles, which is critical to landscape function and climate change mitigation.
Stephen Leslie is a co-owner of Cedar Mountain Farm and Cobb Hill Cheese located at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT. Stephen is an author with Chelsea Green Publishing.
(1) Seeing Forests for the Trees and Carbon: Mapping the World’s Forests in Three Dimensions— Michael Carlowicz, Nasa Earth Observatory, January 9, 2012
(2) How Forests Store Carbon—Calvin Norman & Melissa Kreye, Penn State Extension, September 24, 2020
3) Report: Vermont Losing 1,500 Acres of Forest Every Year—Joshua E. Brown, UVM Today, September 19, 2017