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Forest Gumption

In Goshen, an innkeeper looks out for the woods


Published July 23, 2003 at 3:14 p.m.

At Blueberry Hill in Goshen, innkeeper Tony Clark treats his guests to great food in a charming old farmhouse surrounded by some of the finest cross-country skiing in the state. The good-natured host presides over the scene with an English-accented extroversion that puts even the most tightly wound weekend warrior immediately at ease. For backup, he's got the chocolate chip cookie jar -- it's never, ever empty.

The same accommodating approach guides his avocation: shaping Vermont's land-use policy as it pertains to forest lands. Clark has been "partnering" with rangers since the first "man in green" showed up in the '70s to point out that Clark's vast network of well-groomed ski trails extended beyond his personal property line. Blueberry Hill became the first cross-country ski area in New England to get a special-use permit to develop trails on National Forest land. "We became something of a model for other nordic centers in Vermont," Clark explains. And it was "brilliant" public relations for Smoky. "You've got the private sector managing and grooming their trails," he says, "and the taxpayer actually knows where the National Forest starts and stops be-cause there's signage out there."

Clark's definition of "hospitality" includes taking care of the land around him -- way beyond his own property line, as it turns out. Where the feds have fallen short, he's come up with his own solutions -- like pulling together the Moosalamoo Association, a group of local organizations motivated to preserve and promote recreation, tourism and conservation west of the Long Trail between the Brandon and Middlebury gaps.

Jim Northrup, a former planner for the Green Mountain Forest and current director of the conservation group Forest Watch, claims the area's diversity of attractions makes it "one of the best outdoor playgrounds in the Northeast."

But the diversity of partners comprising the group is "a reflection of Tony" and his unique worldview, Northrup asserts. "It's conservation people, business owners, local officials, logging types and back-country interests all in one, and all committed to promoting the ecological and economic health of the Moosalamoo area."

"Tony has this philosophy that things are settled around the kitchen table in Vermont, and I agree with that," Northrup says. "And he's got one of the more elegant kitchen tables in Vermont's back-woods to offer."

It's a testament to the innkeeper's peacekeeping skills that he enlisted both the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers and the Green Mountain Club in the Moosalamoo Association. But the bigger conflict in forest politics today is not between snowmobilers and hikers; it's between the timber industry and wilderness advocates. National parks and forests allow logging as well as new roads and campgrounds. On land designated as "wilderness," however, nothing motorized is permitted, including trail-grooming equipment.

For all its glorious vistas, Vermont doesn't have all that much wilderness. Only 1 percent of the state's land is so designated, compared to the national average of 5. Seven percent of New York State is off limits to snowmobiles and chainsaws. Outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife conservationists generally agree that Vermont needs more pristine areas, but they don't necessarily see eye to eye on where or how much.

Clark is right in the middle of that debate, too. He's part of a group advising the state's congressional delegation on the forest's future in Vermont. All three support the creation of more wilderness in the Green Mountain State, but not at the expense of "a vibrant, sustainable, reliable and environmentally sound timber-harvesting program... that could provide a model for the nation," as a letter from the trio imagines it.

Jim Jeffords, Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders all signed the missive sanctioning the "Blueberry Hill Gang," as Clark calls it, to identify, analyze and make recommendations about resolving "potential use conflicts in the forest." The informal discussion group has been meeting monthly since last fall and includes rangers, local selectman and the vice-president at Killington. Clark is one of the few business types in the bunch.

"There's about 380,000 acres of national forest land in Ver-mont, of which about 30 percent is presently in wilderness," he expounds, demonstrating his negotiating skills. "Are we going to be satisfied with 50 percent of the national forest being a wilderness-designated area? Forty-five percent? Can we agree on something we should strive for?

"I'm doing the same thing with the timber people," Clark continues. "I'm asking, 'What is your vision? How much commercial timber do you want to remove? I don't want to hear, 'Well, as much as possible.' Can we all live with, say, no logging above 2000 feet? Twenty-five-hundred feet? Can we all live with no logging above a certain elevation and come up with a plan?"

Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Harder still is to keep track of the agencies appointed to oversee it. National park land is supervised by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Champion lands are state-owned. The National Forest is a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As Vermont-y as it sounds, the Green Mountain National Forest lives and dies by acts of Congress.

And grows, as it turns out, by about 2000 acres a year. That makes Vermont's forest uniquely aggressive among the states. "We have a real active land-acquisition program," says Steve Kimball, district ranger for the northern half of the Green Mountain Forest. "The delegation seems to have a clear vision that they'd like to see the forest expand."

For Kimball, that means finding good, available lands near or within the forest boundary. Once they've been identified, he -- or one of the five people working on the National Forest's "lands team" in Rutland -- starts the process of assessing local and state support for conservation. That may involve informational meetings or even a town vote. The National Forest acquired privately owned Warren Falls a few years ago, for example, because "the town really liked the idea of it being publicly owned."

The final step in the process is alerting Vermont's representatives in Washington. The rangers don't lobby for new lands. "We try to make sure the delegation is aware of the acquisition opportunities," says Kimball. "Then they go and find the money for us."

How the lands get used is another, more controversial matter. Every 15 years or so, rangers renew a "forest plan" that specifies how areas will be developed. "It's basically a blueprint," says Kimball, "kind of like zoning for a town. Some areas might have more timber emphasis. Others are reserved for wildlife habitat." The ultimate authority, oddly, resides with the regional forester in Milwaukee.

Northrup at Forest Watch hoped to have an impact on that plan when he signed on to a proposal that calls for doubling the amount of wilderness in Vermont. Submitted in 2001 by a coalition of conservation groups called the Vermont Wilderness Association, the well-researched plea pushes for a 40,000-acre area to be created around Glastenbury Mountain in southern Vermont, "where the timberland we are giving up is inconsequential compared to the wild land we are gaining," Northrup says. The 100-square-mile tract "is the biggest, best opportunity to create wild land in Vermont. You'd be able to walk from one corner to the other for about 50 miles."

The proposal also envisions a strip of wilderness between the Long Trail and Romance Mountain, over which Clark currently maintains a trail. The rest of the Moosalamoo area would be converted from National Forest to a "national recreation area." The designation comes with restrictions that would seriously curtail future logging on lands around Blueberry Hill.

Kimball is not sold on the idea. Additional wilderness is one of a "bunch of things" that needs to be incorporated into his government plan, he says. But the wilderness proposal piqued the interest of Vermont's top-ranking politicians, who can opt to make more local wilderness a legislative priority. Enter the Blueberry Hill Gang advisory board, on which Clark plays a crucial role.

"He does not have a vested interest in either wilderness or logging, and I think that, in itself, gives him a neutral, third-party perspective," says Forest Watch's Northrup, who is also part of the group. "He can hold things up to proponents on both sides and help them see more clearly opportunities for compromise and middle ground."

That particular skill may have something to do with Clark's culture-crossing background -- he's a natural expat. Although he carried a British passport, he was raised in Bordeaux, where the Clark family has lived for generations. He learned English and French simultaneously, and spent summers hiking in the Pyrenees. Last year, at age 58, he became an American citizen.

His first trip to the States, at age 20, brought him to Cam-bridge, where his brother was at Harvard. He landed a job teaching French at a private school in Massachusetts. There he found his future wife (now an ex). Together they moved to Vermont, worked a few odd jobs and "muddled our way through the late '60s thing of animals and gardens," Clark recalls.

When they decided to start a cross-country ski area in Goshen, the timing was perfect. In 1971, the sport was just taking off. He also had befriended Johannes von Trapp, who was starting a nordic ski center in Stowe. "We went out, hung up a few ribbons in the woods, hadn't a clue whose land we were on, and called ourselves a ski-touring center," Clark says. "In those days, it was all by donation."

Gradually, though, the trails widened and the house started to look more and more like a European-style inn. Travel writers took note and the price went up. The townspeople began to notice an increasing number of out-of-state license plates driving up National Forest Highway 32. "They called for a meeting: the town of Goshen versus Blueberry Hill," Clark recalls, attributing some of the suspicion to his "foreigner" status. "People were saying they moved up here to get away from this."

Clark rose to the diplomatic challenge by creating a ski-for-free program for local kids, one of whom went on to qualify for the junior national nordic team. He also started throwing annual community pig roasts and, unlike many of his neighbors, never posted his land. In November, hunters roam the well-groomed Blueberry Hill trails free of charge.

Clark learned as he went along about skiing, tourism, diversification and the health of the forest. Describing him as "thoughtful, visionary and solution-oriented," Kimball suggests Clark "really knows the history of the forest and the dynamics of the economics here. He's highly aware of trends, and because he talks to so many visitors, understands what people are looking for."

More importantly, what they will be looking for. "We're caretakers, not owners. We're just passing through," Clark says. "Our job is to protect what we have for future generations to enjoy."