Proposed Worcester Range plan in Vermont highlights tensions over forest management amid climate change
The Worcester Range is one of the highest, wildest stretches of ridgeline in Vermont. It runs parallel to the Green Mountain spine, from Middlesex and Waterbury, to Elmore.
There are no power lines or cell phone towers, no ski areas.
And while old management plans exist for individual parcels within the area, state regulators have never had a comprehensive plan for how to manage this 19,000-acre swath of public land — until now.
The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR) is looking for public feedback on the first ever long range management plan for the roughly 19,000-acre Worcester Range Management Unit. It will determine how they manage forests in the Worcester Range over the next 20 years.
The state’s proposal has ignited the latest fight in a perennial debate in Vermont over how best to manage our forested landscape in the face of climate change.
On a gloomy day in January, I drove with Greg Labarthe to the top of an old dirt road in Worcester. The mountains around us were obscured by a dense layer of fog, so he told me what we couldn’t see.
“Above us is just this gorgeous alpine bowl. You know, Mount Hunger’s right up there in the fog … and you know, there are just some beautiful old trails in there. Nothing official, nothing really maintained,” he said.
We were standing near the top of the Minister Brook watershed, looking up at an area of hardwood forest that the state has identified as a good candidate for timber harvests in its draft Worcester Range Long Range Management Plan.
“There’s a couple little knobs over here, if you just slipped through there,” Labarthe said. “There are these beautiful hardwoods that will slide you right down the trailhead to Mount Worcester.”
In addition to identifying opportunities for timber harvests, the plan will also decide things like where mountain biking is allowed and where new trails can be built. It sets aside certain areas in the range to be more strictly protected from human intervention.
However, it also opens up 13 areas spanning about 2,000 acres for potential timber harvests over the next two decades — mostly at lower elevations on the eastern flank of the range, in the towns of Middlesex and Worcester.
That’s a fairly substantial change in management. According to FPR, only about 700 acres were logged in the Worcester Range in the last 40 years.
And while he is in no way opposed to logging and says he supports the local timber industry in his community, Labarthe has some questions about whether what the state proposes is in line with Vermont’s climate commitments.
In comments filed with the state, he told regulators what’s proposed doesn’t feel like a plan for the 21st century with regards to how it addresses climate change.
“It's one of the easiest opportunities the state has to protect land, is when it owns it,” he said.
The Worcester Range is already permanently protected from development. With this plan, the state is proposing to set an additional 5,500 acres or so aside as a Highly Sensitive Management Area. Timber harvests won’t be carried out there during the life of the plan, and it will mean that about half of the management unit is protected from logging, with most of that land falling at higher and mid-elevations.
But some people would like to see the 100 to 120-year-old forest there set aside permanently, to be allowed to grow old, with more of that land set aside at lower elevations.
“Honestly, I would have liked to have seen the whole contiguous 35 or 3,400 acres in the Middlesex-Worcester General Vegetation Management Area be put into an ecological reserve,” said Bodo Carey, a retired science teacher from Worcester.
Carey and others have asked why the plan needs to be completed now.
FPR says they’ve been working on the plan since 2019, and they need to manage growing recreation pressure in this part of the state, particularly from mountain biking, skiing and hiking.
The Agency of Natural Resources’ own planning says the state should aim for 9% of its forests to be old forests that are on average more than 150 years old and operate under “natural disturbance regimes.” Right now we’re at about 1%. The same document — Vermont Conservation Design — recommends Vermont aim for about 3-5% of our forests to be managed as “young.”
And while Vermont Conservation Design says passive restoration should work in most parts of our forested landscape, the state argues that to help the teenage forest of the Worcester Range age, it needs to step in and correct its course, in some places.
Additionally, last year lawmakers passed the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Act. It sets a goal for Vermont to conserve 30% of its land by 2030, and 50% by 2050 — with some of that land being managed as ecological reserves, areas where there will be very little human intervention. For forests, the hope is to let these areas grow old.
The Agency of Natural Resources is working now to inventory conserved land in the state, and develop recommendations for how to move forward and how existing regulations and programs could be leveraged to meet Vermont’s goals. The review is due back to lawmakers this July, and a full plan for how to get to 30x30 is due in 2025.
On top of that, regulators are in the midst of overhauling how the state writes long range management plans like this one. FPR is in the midst of writing a draft rule to standardize its work on long range management plans and revisit the public’s role in shaping how the state manages its forests.
FPR Commissioner Danielle Fitzko says that draft rule is anticipated later this winter or spring.
Zack Porter, with the old forest advocacy group Standing Trees, which opposes logging on state lands, disagrees with the department’s assessment that it needs to intervene on the Worcester Range. He hopes the new rule will more formally codify how the department factors climate change into its land use decisions.
And he points to polling FPR did in 2020, in which roughly 85% of participants said they placed a high value on managing for fish and wildlife habitat and protecting Vermont’s resources, as compared with roughly 50% who said they placed a high value on managing for sustainable forestry.
“This plan is being rushed, as the public’s opinion about state land management changes, as our appreciation for the threat that is posed by this increase in the frequency and intensity of flood events … as we realize we need to do more to leverage state lands for the ecosystem services they provide,” Porter said.
But not all environmental groups in the state are aligned on this issue.
The Nature Conservancy in Vermont says it supports the draft plan and feels it strikes the right balance between maintaining wildlife connectivity and old forests.
In an emailed statement, the organization said, “We recognize the role public lands have in providing timber resources and believe any forest management in the Worcester Range Management Unit should have the dual goal of providing forest products while creating a more climate resilient forest.”
In addition to being a critical wildlife corridor, connecting the Green Mountains with the Northeast Kingdom, the Worcester Range contains the headwaters of several streams that flow into the North Branch of the Winooski and Wrightsville Reservoir.
Porter points to science that shows older undisturbed forests help slow floodwaters like the ones that swamped Montpelier in July.
Where Porter says these areas shouldn’t be disturbed because of climate change, scientists with the state say that’s why these places are in dire need of intervention.
Jim Duncan is the state lands manager for FPR. He says some of the lower forest is not very diverse in species or age, which makes it vulnerable to pests and climate change. He says foresters want to harvest trees there to make space for other tree species move in.
“We’re ending up with a concern, I think, that if we don’t manage these stands where beech are diseased in the understory, we’re going to get a diseased forest in the future,” Duncan said. “So when we think about our department’s mission, to manage for productive resilient forests, seeing those forest pest challenges on the ground … it’s an issue we have to manage for.”
Duncan says in some places, Vermont’s northern hardwood forest is not on track to grow old right now. And while he says we need more old forests (and young forests, at all elevations) Duncan says setting large swaths of forest aside to be unmanaged permanently as Act 59 requires has a drawback of taking away tools science can offer to help them adapt in an unpredictable future.
"We are dealing with ecosystems that haven't existed for very long and haven't existed before colonial clearing and post settlement clearing,” Duncan said. “We have forest pests that are threatening tree health in a way that we've never seen before. And it keeps coming, and add on top of that the stress of climate change."
Under the department’s draft plan, all of the trees that are harvested will be selected individually by foresters. There will be no clear cuts.
And while foresters can do things like thinning and invasive species management without commercial timber sales, Duncan says a sale is the most efficient way to do this work at scale.
The department brought in about $350,000 in revenue from timber harvests on state lands last year.
FPR couldn’t say how much of its budget is dedicated to forest management that does not require a commercial timber sale — but says projects that don’t involve timber harvests are much more costly for taxpayers.
FPR Commissioner Danielle Fitzko says timber sales on state lands are important for the state’s timber industry, which her department is charged with supporting in its management decisions.
“On state lands, we’re not driven by markets or economics. And we often provide more of a stable timber supply,” Fitzko said. “And that really helps the industry because it gets them out of that bust and boom cycle.”
Loggers echo that, saying that having access to state lands is important for business.
The industry is on the front lines of climate change — loggers can only work when the ground is frozen or dry. And Vermont has faced 16 consecutive months of wet soil, says Sam Lincoln, a logger from Randolph who used to work for FPR.
He says state jobs tend to be bigger than ones on private land, and the industry is in such dire straits right now, that every job counts.
“That gives them some security that they have work to go to if a job falls through or the conditions aren’t right on another site, that they have a good sized tract to go harvest,” he said. “I think it brings some really important security to the raw material supply … whether it’s a logger or a mill — they both are needed.”
But by FPR’s own rough estimate, logging on state lands accounts for just about one to 3% of the timber sold in Vermont, though the department says that figure is difficult to calculate with accuracy.
Critics of the proposed plan question whether that’s really enough to meaningfully help the forest products industry.
Policy in limbo
Given the rulemaking underway and nascent planning for how to reach 30 by 30, set out under the Biodiversity and Community Resilience Act, Zack Porter with Standing Trees and others want FPR to pump the brakes on the Worcester Range plan until Vermont has a roadmap for how to reach those goals.
But even if state land managers want to set aside land in the Worcester Range for permanent protection, it’s not clear that they can right now.
Vermont statute explicitly allows, but does not require, the department manage for timber harvests on state lands, though it does charge the Commissioner with promoting and protecting “the natural, productive and recreational values” of those lands.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, a Democrat from Middlebury who sponsored the Biodiversity Act and chairs the House Energy and Environment Committee, said she was pleased to see the plan protect higher elevation forests.
But she called the timing, with planning for 30 by 30 still underway, unfortunate.
“We need old forests in all elevations, and with all kinds of characteristics,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon says it may be time to revisit how we manage our landscape in the face of flooding and other climate-driven natural disasters.
“We don’t have enabling statute to create wilderness, and that is definitely something I’ve been looking at,” she said.
FPR Commissioner Fitzko says she believes what’s proposed in the draft Worcester Range Long Range Management Plan does support the goals of the Biodiversity Act.
“If we actually look at the biophysical region, where the Worcester Management Unit lies, this plan will help us get to 85% of that 9% [old forest] target in this region,” Fitzko said, referring to land set aside for little intervention over the next two decades.
"It’s easy to imagine shifting priorities, looking at that as potential money for state activities.”Shelby Perry, Northeast Wilderness Trust
But Act 59 calls for permanently conserved areas where little human intervention occurs. And Shelby Perry, with the Northeast Wilderness Trust, says that’s what’s missing from the picture now, in Vermont.
The Trust owns the adjacent Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve.
Perry says the longer you don’t cut trees for, the more the economic pressure to log them grows.
“There will come a time when our properties probably have the biggest trees around on them, if we are committing to not cutting them and much of the rest of the landscape is being cut,” Perry said. “And it’s easy to imagine shifting priorities, looking at that as potential money for state activities.”
She says having a mechanism for permanently protecting old forests in some places in Vermont is key — and it’s not incompatible with a healthy forest products economy.
“They take so long to develop and so fast can they disappear.”
The public comment period for the plan concludes on February 2, 2024.
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