Climate Crisis Spawns a Push to Ban Logging in the Green Mountain National Forest | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Climate Crisis Spawns a Push to Ban Logging in the Green Mountain National Forest

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A clear-cut in the Green Mountain National Forest near Rochester - COURTESY OF ZACH PORTER
  • Courtesy Of Zach Porter
  • A clear-cut in the Green Mountain National Forest near Rochester

Karen Bixler made her way down a steep logging road deep in the Green Mountains last week, a bright rainbow on her floppy hat and a dark scowl on her face. The Bethel resident had spent the previous hour listening to U.S. Forest Service staffers explain why they had allowed loggers to clear-cut a nearby 10-acre swath of forest two years ago.

Removing nearly all the trees from designated areas creates patches of new forest that quickly regenerate into vital wildlife habitat, the experts told Bixler and about 30 others who toured the site in the town of Chittenden. Forester James Donahey and his colleagues explained that "early successional" forests provide tender new growth favored by moose and deer, fruiting bushes that feed bears, and refuge for birds and wildlife to raise their young.

Bixler wasn't buying it.

"I think it's bullshit," she said as she steadied herself with a hiking pole to navigate the rutted dirt road that led away from the logging site. Forests need to be left alone to recover from the beating they've taken at the hands of man, not logged more intensively — no matter how that's dressed up and justified, Bixler said.

But more logging is exactly what the Green Mountain National Forest is facing over the next decade. Stands that haven't been cut in the better part of a century are reaching maturity — from an economic perspective, anyway.

Between now and 2030, managers of Vermont's largest swath of public forest could triple the number of acres open to logging, a prospect that has alarmed some environmental activists, including Bixler, and spurred them to get involved.

The forest service acknowledges that timber harvests are on the rise but says the increase has been gradual and that harvest increases are unlikely to be as significant as the plans suggest.

"I think there's been some alarm at the number and the scale of the projects that have been analyzed and rolled out to the public," said Jeffrey Tilley, forestry program leader for the Green Mountain National Forest.

Once foresters closely analyze the landscape, they will probably only authorize logging on a portion of the acres, making the current estimates seem inflated, he said.

In the last 24 years, an average of about 580 acres a year have been logged in the national forest. In the next 10 years, plans call for tripling that rate to about 1,772 acres a year.

The 17,728 acres slated for logging between 2021 and 2030 are just a fraction of the 416,000 acres in the national forest, which was created in 1932 to protect a part of the Green Mountains from unregulated logging and land clearing. Today, much logging is done selectively, often to achieve forest restoration goals, with clear-cuts limited to 30 acres in most areas.

The proposed increase has nevertheless outraged some environmental activists, who say the climate crisis underscores the need to let trees grow so they can absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, limbs and roots.

Advocates have banded together in the past year under the banner Standing Trees Vermont, aiming to halt commercial logging on public forest land. Their goals go well beyond those of established environmental groups that have long sought to preserve large blocks of woodlands as working forest.

"There are lots of organizations that talk about forest fragmentation," said Mark Nelson, who sits on the board of one of those groups, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, but is also a leader of Standing Trees. "There is no organization standing up with a single voice saying, 'We want to change how our public forests are managed.'"

Nelson said the fledgling grassroots organization grew out of opposition to a proposed biomass plant at a Brattleboro paper mill, Long Falls Paperboard. The company received a $1 million federal grant last year to study switching from natural gas to wood chips to lower its energy costs. Opponents learned that the wood chips would come from logging jobs in the national forest. That led them to take a closer look at the logging plans.

"People just jumped on it when they found out what was going on," Nelson said.

Facing opposition to the project, the company abandoned the idea. Activists cheered the decision and shifted their focus to opposing the logging.

One of the group's first public events was a Zoom screening of the documentary BURNED: Are Trees The New Coal? The film investigates the rapid growth of the biomass energy industry in the southeastern United States. More than 200 people participated.

"We were blown away and realized we'd touched on something that people were really concerned about," Nelson said.

That's an understatement, said Zack Porter, who works for Conservation Law Foundation as the Lake Champlain lakekeeper.

"I think it's safe to say people are appalled by the projects that have recently been approved and the logging that is going on right now in some of Vermont's healthiest forests, and they don't want to see it happen again," Porter said.

CLF touts the benefits of more "passive management" of forests and supports increasing the amount of land protected from logging — but has not backed a total ban of logging on public lands.

Porter was one of the most vocal inquisitors of forest service staff on the recent field trip. The outing took place in the upper White River watershed, where the logging of 9,277 acres was approved in 2018. The logging is expected to produce 18 million board feet of lumber and 57,025 cords of firewood over several years.

The visit was also meant to educate the public about another big timber plan on the horizon, the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project. Logging and a variety of forest restoration work would take place primarily in the town of Chittenden, as well as parts of Killington, Mendon, Pittsfield, Pittsford, Rutland Town and Goshen.

More public site visits are planned through the fall focusing on specific concerns, such as waterways and carbon storage. Forest service ecologists, biologists and wildlife experts will all weigh in before the district ranger signs off on the plan sometime in 2022.

About 2,127 acres of timber have been identified for possible logging in the 32,000-acre area, though the figure is "coarse" and subject to change before work could begin in 2023, Tilley said.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that logging will continue to exceed the recent rates, largely because there was so little timber-cutting in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Porter, a former U.S. Forest Service staffer himself, is particularly concerned about logging's impacts on waterways. He notes that the new project straddles the spine of the Green Mountains, meaning that logging and new logging roads risk degrading the headwaters of watersheds. He argues that the forest service has exploited a loophole in a 2001 rule designed to protect remote forests.

"Large areas of roadless forests that could not be logged in other parts of the country under the 2001 rule are currently or have already been logged in Vermont, and that's a problem," Porter said,

New logging roads contribute to the phosphorus problem in Otter Creek and Lake Champlain when they are washed out by the more intense rainstorms that Vermont is experiencing due to the climate crisis. Already, 20 percent of the phosphorus in Otter Creek comes from logging activity, and the Telephone Gap project will only exacerbate the problem, Porter said.

Proposals such as the one for Telephone Gap are still being reviewed under an overall management plan the forest service approved in 2006. "In the 15 years since the forest plan was signed, the science has changed radically on everything from climate to water quality to biodiversity," Porter said.

U.S. Forest Service Ranger Chris Mattrick (center) speaking about logging activity - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • U.S. Forest Service Ranger Chris Mattrick (center) speaking about logging activity

Even though the underlying plan is from 2006, Chris Mattrick, the district ranger for the Rochester and Middlebury areas, said his foresters are required to use current sound science when making decisions about the forest.

Mattrick said he has some discretion when deciding where and how much land gets logged — or "treated," in forest service parlance. The forest service has a target for the Green Mountain National Forest of 19.6 million board feet per year, but loggers are only cutting at about half that rate for reasons that include the lengthy review process and local industry capacity, Tilley said.

Mattrick said he lacks the power to cease logging in the forest entirely.

"We're mandated by Congress, by law, to be a multiple-use management agency — recreation, timber management, wildlife management," he told last week's visitors. "If you're looking for a change, for us to do something different, for us to not do any management, like Zack [Porter] is suggesting, you're going to have to take that up with Congress."'

But Nelson said he and others in the group are optimistic that forest service staff can be convinced of the value of allowing forests to grow old and sequester as much carbon as possible.

He noted that public lands make up just 20 percent of the state's forestland, and to cease logging on them would still leave 80 percent of Vermont's forestland in private ownership available to the timber industry.

Such a radical change in forest policy would nevertheless devastate local sawmills such as A. Johnson, according to Bruce Danek, a forester with the Bristol-based mill and lumber supplier who also joined the tour.

"The forest service timber sales are incredibly important to the local forest economy," Danek said as the tour moved to a forest road west of Granville village.

Conservationists are proposing restrictions like those that decimated local economies in the Adirondacks, where Danek used to work as a forester before he left to provide better opportunities for his family, he said.

Ed Larson, a veteran private forester and lobbyist for the Vermont Forest Products Association, listened patiently for most of the field trip as advocates called for less or no logging. When Porter argued, however, that the values to the public of letting forests grow were far greater than what would be gained through logging, Larson protested.

"How do you measure that?" he yelled toward Porter, sparking a brief but passionate debate about forest economics.

Larson later said critics of logging conveniently ignore all the carbon that logging removes from the forest and sequesters in homes, furniture and other durable wood products. That creates forest space for new, faster-growing trees to replace them. Critics also ignore all the carbon impacts that would result from people choosing less-sustainable alternatives to locally produced wood products, he said.

Tilley, the forest service program leader, said he understands the attraction to the simple idea that just letting trees grow will suck up more carbon and help address the climate crisis. Healthy woodlands such as the Green Mountain National Forest do exactly that, he said.

"I do believe that leaving forests alone and maximizing carbon storage and sequestration is important, and we should be doing it on a landscape scale in the national forests," Tilley said. "And we are."

But an outright ban would mean that foresters could no longer use logging as a tool to manage habitats, combat invasive species or harvest trees felled by severe weather, he said.

"I certainly understand their concerns and share their climate concerns," he said of logging critics. "There is just so much more complexity to it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Clear-Cut?"