By SCOOTER MACMILLAN
In a cold that mere mittens could not keep out, 15 people gathered in the snowy woods of the Hinesburg Town Forest on Saturday to hear about the management plan for the 837- acre wood.
Chittenden County Forester Ethan Tapper was joined by Harris Roen, who wrote the Town Forest’s current management plan; John McNerney who is one of the co-owners of Little Hogback Community Forest in Monkton; Andrea Shortsleeve, a private lands and habitat biologist with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources; and Pat Mainer, chair of the Hinesburg Town Forest Committee.
The group gathered and started off its walk at the Economou Road Trailhead and hiked a short distance into a a spot where a logging operation is underway this winter and next.
The Hinesburg Town Forest committee scheduled the logging of selected trees on about 40 acres during the winter because removing the trees with heavy equipment when the ground is frozen limits the damage to the forest floor.
Part of the conversation in the group walk touched on how this town forest is one of the oldest of its type in the state.
Mainer said that the original management plan was written by Perry Merrill on the back of an envelope in the 1950s.
“This forest is on the National Register of Historic Sites because it represents forestry thinking for many, many decades,” Mainer said. “As far as anyone knows, it’s the only forest in the United States that’s had a continuous management plan for that long.”
Merrill, who passed away in 1993, was the official who is credited by the New York Times as establishing Vermont’s system of forests and parks and pioneering the use of the money collected from skiing to finance that system.
“Instead of trying to simplify our forests, we’re trying to increase them in complexity,” Tapper said. “We’re trying to encourage irregularity, encourage weirdness, encourage messiness.”
One of the goals of the winter logging is to increase the diversity of the species, ages and sizes of the trees in the Hinesburg Town Forest. It is also being done to improve the forest’s wildlife habitat and to improve its resiliency to climate change, natural distubances and invasive species such as the Emerald Ash Borer.
He said from the 1930s through the 1960s, it was believed that wood could be grown more efficiently by humans than by nature in controlling every aspect of it and managing the forests as tree plantations.
“You can grow trees efficiently that way sometimes, but you can’t grow forests,” Tapper said.
He added that they were trying to leave as much wood as possible on the ground, which means that he instructs the loggers working the current wood harvesting project in the Hinesburg Town Forest to leave the smaller trees or limbs that are knocked down that have no value. He also tells the loggers not to cut up the smaller trees and limbs left behind.
That’s because the trees that fall and are left not only rot to become new soil and nutrients, but they provide a seed bed for new saplings.
“We call (the fallen trees) nurse trees,” he said.
Tapper said that he was almost as excited to get the wood on the ground as he was to move it out of the forest as part of the logging project. Often, he finds that loggers are reluctant to leave wood on the ground because they think it looks messy. He thinks messy is good.
“Another thing that happens when we clear-cut our forests years ago is that we totally decimated our supply of course woody debris that we’d been building up for thousands of years,” Tapper said. “When I’m walking through the woods and I see a tree blown down, I think it’s really exciting. It’s a chance for something else to be happening.”
Preserving forests, saving bats
The group was gathered in an opening where high winds had felled a number of trees. Even in the bitter cold, Tapper was clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities the fallen trees meant for the forest.
“And here we’re in Indiana bat territory,” Shortsleeve said. “That’s a protected species and you can only log here during the winter.”
Hinesburg has another town forest, the LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest, that was saved partly due to the discovery of Indiana bats there.
“It’s the northernmost maternal colony,” Mainer said.
Hinesburg began to acquire property for the Hinesburg Town Forest during the 1920s and much of it is comprised of old family farms that were abandoned or taken over because of unpaid taxes. Mainer said that some of the forest came from dairy farms that failed during the 1930s and 40s. When the industry changed to bulk milk processing, the large trucks couldn’t drive up the hills to some farms.
Tapper said that the Town of Hinesburg has made about $6,000 from this logging harvest so far and he expects that profit might double this winter.
“I became a forest owner last year and I realized there’s these things called taxes I’ve got to pay every year for the privilege of owning that property, and that’s thousands of dollars every year,” Tapper said. “So, earning a little bit of money from your land isn’t anything you should feel ashamed of. It is part of what keeps our forests forested.”
The group ended up back at a blazing bonfire and talk of the plans for the Hinesburg Town Forest continued. As handwarmers cooled off, the group of intrepid hikers and tree lovers began to dwindle. Snow that had started as flurries began to turn more steady with the onset of Winter Storm Harper Saturday afternoon.
Suddenly, it occurred to the last stragglers that it was probably a good time to hike out and get home.
Tapper plans more hikes, most of which will take place during warmer conditions. Although no dates are specific, he said he will have a hike in mid to late March and a hike in June that will highlight wildlife and wildlife management in the town forest.
In sometime in April he hopes to hold a night at Hinesburg’s Carpenter-Carse Library about the forest’s history.
“Not every walk is at below zero,” Tapper said by phone. “The goal is to have as many opportunities as we can to give people opportunities to engage with the town forest.”