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Work: Chittenden County Forester Ethan Tapper


Published September 11, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Ethan Tapper - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Ethan Tapper

Name: Ethan Tapper, 30
Town: Burlington
Job: Chittenden County forester

In the 1800s, approximately 80 percent of Vermont forests were cleared for pasture-based agriculture. That land use remained dominant for more than a century. The practice may have been good for commerce, but it was a "catastrophic disturbance" for forests, said Chittenden County forester Ethan Tapper.

Trees began to reestablish themselves in the 1940s and '50s, and forests now cover about 75 percent of the state, but "they're essentially in a state of recovery," Tapper said. He's among the Vermonters devoted to helping them.

Tapper assists private landowners and municipalities in responsibly stewarding their forests, which cover some 60 percent of Chittenden County. A Saxtons River native and 2012 graduate of the University of Vermont's forestry program, Tapper has been the county forester since 2016. He believes his work is important not only to forests but to all Vermonters. His monthly column "Into the Woods," geared to the public and published in 11 local newspapers, covers everything from managing deer pressure to understanding tree species.

Seven Days spoke with Tapper about what foresters do, how Vermont forests are faring and why he loves his job.

SEVEN DAYS: What knowledge and skills go into being a forester?

ETHAN TAPPER: There's an understanding of how forests work, all these interconnected parts — from geology to soils to wildlife biology to conservation biology — that make up how forest ecosystems function. And there's the practice of forestry, the field skills: collecting data on forests, mapping those forests and using that data to prescribe active management, if that's appropriate in a given forest.

SD: What do you do as county forester?

ET: Essentially, four things. First, I monitor the Use Value Appraisal Program in Chittenden County, also called "current use." That's where, usually, private consulting foresters are developing forest management plans for private landowners. Those plans are then submitted to me for approval, and I make sure they're followed.

Second, people call me for advice on how to manage forested land. We take a walk in their forest and talk about how to manage it or what's going on there.

The third thing I do is assist communities with their municipal lands, and I write forest management plans for town forests. I'm involved in a project now in Hinesburg, demonstrating modern, responsible active forest management and doing it in this really open and transparent way: bringing timber harvesting out of the shadows and reframing it as something that can be done responsibly. If it's done responsibly, it's really exciting because you're providing all kinds of benefits, as well as a local renewable resource.

Finally, the most exciting part of my job is what I call "whatever." It's figuring out how to elevate the quality of forest management in Chittenden County — thinking about what's going on and what steps we can take to increase the health and well-being of our forests.

SD: How are Vermont forests faring?

ET: They're recovering more natural forest patterns, but they lack diversity. They aren't as diverse as those that preceded all the clearing in the 1800s. And I mean that in terms of species diversity: There are fewer native tree species in a given area. They also have less structural diversity; they are mostly the same age. In an old-growth forest, you would see a large amount of structural diversity — many different ages and sizes of trees coexisting.

Vermont forests are not as diverse as they could be, and the implications are that they may be less resilient to catastrophic disturbances, and they'll be less resilient to climate change.

But using harvesting now, on a parcel-by-parcel basis, we can reinstall some of the features that may have been present on presettlement forests.

SD: What else makes forest management important?

ET: The reason it's significant what foresters do — and especially consulting foresters, who work for private landowners — is that 80 percent of Vermont land is privately owned, yet forests and our native ecosystems are producing a massive amount of public benefit: wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration storage. And our lives are positively impacted by forests, whether it's living here where it's beautiful, or the forest where you walk or run or mountain bike, or having wonderful experiences seeing wildlife.

But forests are managed on this private, individual property level, so how we manage them is very important. We're thinking about: How can I manage this forest to be more diverse, to produce better wildlife habitat, to produce more ecosystem services, to produce a local renewable resource in a way that makes sense?

SD: How many Chittenden County landowners are in the current use program?

ET: I don't know for the county, but on the statewide level, participation of eligible lands in UVA is less than 50 percent. It would be great to get that number up. [In the program,] you can't subdivide or develop your land without paying a penalty, and you have to follow a forest management plan. In exchange, landowners get significant tax breaks. It lowers development pressure on land, and it elevates the quality of forest management because, instead of landowners doing whatever they want, they comply with a plan written by a consulting forester and supervised by me.

I love working with landowners who are open to learning and who are active on their land. These people are all over the place. They are amazing to work with because they have such an understanding of how forests work from immersing themselves in them, and they are willing to do what's necessary to make the forest healthy. Sometimes you've got to be willing to make hard decisions — to cut that tree down when it's in service to a broader goal of forest health.

The forest requires the death of trees. This is how forests change over time and how they become diverse and how they cultivate really high-quality wildlife habitat. This organism requires this disturbance in order to live.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seeing the Forest and the Trees"