- Taylor Dobbs
- Jason Nerenberg
On a snow-packed logging road near Camel's Hump last Thursday, Matt Leonard halted a team of Vermont biologists and foresters who manage the vast woodlands around the mountain. Leonard, a state forester, had spotted deer tracks leading from a cluster of evergreens 50 yards away. Brimming with pride, he described how the state had approved logging in that stand of trees 17 years ago to foster ideal conditions for deer. The tracks suggested the strategy had worked.
Leonard and the team, led by Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation forester Jason Nerenberg, are responsible for a new 15-year plan for 26,000 acres of state-owned lands on and around Camel's Hump. When the team released a public draft, the document earned praise from environmental groups for its big-picture approach to land management.
Not everyone was impressed. Critics say the plan reflects an "outdated mind-set" that treats forests as a commodity and not as a rich ecosystem.
In the next 15 years, the plan calls for 3,764 acres in Camel's Hump State Park, Camel's Hump State Forest and connected state lands to be logged in a way that officials say will enhance the benefits of the forest for people and wildlife. That represents 251 acres per year — more than triple the average number of acres logged for the past 25 years.
For state officials and critics alike, any discussion about the planned timber harvests quickly becomes philosophical: What is the purpose of a forest? How does the state serve the best interests of a population with so many competing demands on the land? How does commercial logging fit with the mission of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation?
"This was way, way beyond the scope of the logging that's occurred in the past," said Jamison Ervin. She lives with her husband, Alan Pierce, on property abutting the state lands. Both have advanced degrees in land management, and they say the plan amounts to a devastating increase in logging on state land for financial gain. They say the state should be leaving trees in place to combat global climate change.
"This is getting whatever they can out of the park," Ervin said.
The couple said in an interview and in public comments to the state Agency of Natural Resources that the plan shows a disregard for the rich ecosystems on Camel's Hump.
But Forests, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder responds that much of the land around the mountain was cut over in the 1800s and hit by massive wildfires in the early 1900s, so the trees in today's forest are largely all the same age. Logging will create openings in the forest for younger trees to thrive, which makes for a more diverse ecosystem.
In addition, Snyder said, part of his department's legislative mandate is "to encourage economic management of its forests and woodlands." State law specifically authorizes the department to sell timber from state lands in the context of its overall mission of maintaining healthy state parks and forests.
A 45-minute drive from downtown Burlington, Camel's Hump is a popular recreation area year-round. Counting hikers, hunters, skiers, snowmobilers, rock climbers and other visitors, many thousands of people visit Camel's Hump State Park and the adjacent state forest every year.
- Courtesy of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation
To environmental scientists, the area has a different significance. The gigantic swath of virtually uninterrupted forest is one of the state's most important environmental assets. Groundbreaking research on the damage done by acid rain was carried out on the mountain's slopes; near the summit are important migratory bird habitats and legally protected wildflowers.
This variety of public benefits makes public land special, Snyder said, and creates pressure on five regional stewardship teams to manage the state's forests carefully. The teams include scientists from Snyder's department and from the departments of Environmental Conservation and Fish & Wildlife.
For each timber sale on state lands, one of the regional teams decides where to harvest and even which specific trees loggers may remove — they spray a blue dot on each one — to accomplish the state's policy goals. Sometimes that means thinning the forest canopy so that a certain species of tree, like the evergreens Leonard pointed out, can thrive.
Even "patch cuts" — small areas of an acre or so where all trees are felled — are designed to help by turning areas of the land into young forest, where saplings and ground-level vegetation host a vastly different ecosystem than the older forest nearby.
"We use forests a lot, to the point where we've all come to take them for granted," Snyder said. "I would ask your readers: Just look around you right now and consider the wood that's around you. What are you sitting on? What are you writing on? To some degree, this air we're breathing is a forest product."
Between 2002 and 2015, the state netted $925,548 from timber sales around Camel's Hump, or about $868 per acre logged. But Snyder was emphatic that a desire for more revenue isn't driving the planned increase in timber harvests.
Snyder and the other officials say the entire plan — from careful monitoring of the impacts backcountry skiers have on wildlife habitats to the increase in annual logging — is aimed at maintaining and improving public benefits of the forest.
In response to requests from Ervin and others, ANR has extended the public comment period for the plan until April 13. The agency will hold an open house focused on long-range planning for state lands on April 24 from 4 to 5 p.m. at the agency's headquarters on the National Life Group campus in Montpelier.
John Austin, the land and habitat program manager for the Department of Fish & Wildlife, stood in the woods last Thursday with Leonard, his teammates and a reporter. Saplings and thorny berry bushes lined a winding stream ahead. On the other side, an old bird's nest was suspended in the bare branches 10 feet off the forest floor. Austin and Fish & Wildlife biologist David Sausville noted that insects, reptiles, songbirds, deer, moose and bears have all likely benefited from a logging job five years ago aimed at improving habitat for grouse.
"You've created this really healthy, diverse mix of the whole assemblage of the native tree species that you had here to begin with," Austin said. "Now ... you've got a variety of [tree] age classes, which has diversified the forest's structure here."
As he walked, Leonard pointed to red splotches on a map, which depicted sites of up to an acre and a half that had been clear-cut since 2002. The team was pleased with the results.
"The reality is, it creates diversity in the forest," Austin said. "When you see these kind of younger forest openings in the larger forest matrix, these are ecological magnets."