Conservation Currents

Very Smart People

May 2010

by Shelly Stiles

It was about three years ago that the county forester, a consulting forester, and myself got together to create something we called the Bennington County Sustainable Forest Consortium (BCSFC). We wanted to give people who love trees a variety of opportunities to share their experiences while growing their woodland skills. Many, many workshops later, I have come to see that forestry isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. A couple of recent workshops, one on forest birds, another on passing the forest on to the next generation, are cases in point.

Audubon Vermont’s Forest Bird Initiative was created to keep forests forests, because breeding bird survey data has shown that our forests are virtual breeding factories for neo-tropical migratory birds such as Bicknell’s Thrush, Canada Warbler, and Wood Thrush. (For some species, as much as 90% of their population breeds in our northern forests.)

A two-day workshop held in early May on a forested tract in East Rupert addressed the question: what can foresters and forest landowners do to preserve and create habitat for these species, many of them in decline? The workshop was organized by Audubon Vermont and the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, with a little help from the BCSFC.

We tried to answer that question one afternoon deep in Area 3, a young, even-aged mixed hardwood stand containing about 207 trees/acre (these are the sorts of facts secured while producing a forest management plan).

As bird song filled the trees around us, we wondered: how about a crop tree release with canopy gap formation (with gaps 30 to 60 feet in diameter on 5-15% of the area on each entry)? We’d improve habitat for Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood Peewee, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Or should we do an area-wide, relatively heavy thinning from below (that is, leaving the canopy), to create habitat for Veery, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?

But how would the landowner pay for the harvest? The area had been high-graded as recently as the early 90’s, and there wasn’t much sawtimber in the stand. Would a local logger with a mechanical harvester (which can harvest small-diameter pulpwood) find it profitable? To confound things further, elsewhere on the property an irregular shelterwood system, group selection, or other treatment might be best. Could even Timothy Geithner wrap his head around so many variables?

At a workshop the following week at Hildene, we learned that helping a family protect its beloved woodland for future generations in a financially responsible fashion is an equally complicated matter. Whichever structure is chosen (a family trust and donation or sale of development rights are examples) it has to incorporate the financial, philosophical, and conservation goals of possibly numerous family members with a variety of opinions, interests, and skills – and do so over decades.

Still, no matter how challenging the prospect, it is best to start that planning now rather than later. You will need the time. And you don’t want to be forced into decisions by an unexpected death. (Some of the people who attended the workshop were there because they wanted to protect their heirs from the sort of sad estate-related outcomes they themselves experienced after the death of their parents.) So gather together your team of experts. And for forest-owning landowners, start by seeking advice from a forester. Foresters can help you keep forests forests, and much more.

Shelly Stiles is the district manager for the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwester Vermont. Alan Calfee of Calfee Woodland Management, and Rob Woolmington of Witten, Woolmington and Campbell, teamed up to ably present the workshop on forest ownership and generational succession for the BCSFC.

This column appeared in the Bennington Banner in May 2010, as one of the BCCD's Conservation Currents pieces, a bi-weekly feature written by BCCD board and staff members since August 2006.