When people picture Vermont they conjure images of sap buckets on maple trees, fall foliage, rolling hills, and lush forested mountains peppered with lakes. Not that long ago, however, the landscape was very different. At the peak of environmental devastation in Vermont, around 1850, roughly 80% of Vermont’s land was cleared to make way for agriculture and logging, and our natural resources suffered gravely for it. Soils lost their nutrients making the land difficult to farm, lakes and ponds filled with sediments degrading fisheries, river banks collapsed into the rivers and washed downstream, nutrient runoff into streams tainted water supplies, and our wildlife held onto the very fringes at the high peaks and steepest terrain where farming and logging was prohibitively difficult. Moose, whitetail deer, turkeys, beavers, mountain lions, fishers and untold numbers of woodland birds were wiped out. Thankfully, Vermont forests are incredibly resilient.
Agriculture meets forest.
Our ancestors cleared the land and exploited its soils for centuries, not out of malevolence, but because they needed the resources and didn’t know of more sustainable ways to manage the landscape. When the economy collapsed and new opportunities opened out west, many farmers left the region and one by one, fields turned back into forests. Over the course of 160 years, Vermont reverted from 80% cleared to 80% forestland, and unlike the clearcutting of the past, modern logging practices can even promote instead of eliminate biodiversity. Thanks to natural succession, the forests that returned to the landscape are more or less similar to the originals. Sure, some tree species are lost forever due to introduced pests and pathogens, but the forest itself returned along with most of the key players.
Eastern White Pines towering above a younger hardwood forest.
Successional processes in northern Hardwood forests are complex, but predictable. After intense logging stops and grazing or mowing activity ceases, early colonizers arrive. Those early-successional colonizers usually include eastern white pine, northern white cedar, poplars, balsam fir, or some sort of spruce depending on soils, latitude, and elevation. The colonizers germinate and grow well in high light conditions, but form thick canopies that prevent their own seedlings from competing. Instead, shade-tolerant species such as red maple, American beech, oaks, or yellow birch (to name a few) establish themselves in the understory and are ready to shoot to the top as soon as an opening becomes available. Gradually, the forest changes from a mid-successional ecosystem to a mixed hardwood forest. We used to call the hardwood forests in Vermont the “climax ecosystem”, but the climax ecosystem concept doesn’t adequately describe how these ecosystems continue to change over time and sometimes enter successional loops. Invasive species, such as buckthorn and honeysuckle, can slow these successional processes, but the bottom line is the forests eventually get there. Today, large eastern white pines that dwarf the maples surrounding them are among the scattered clues that our forests went through a rather dramatic transformation over the past century. To the untrained eye, the only obvious evidence the forests were ever anything else are the occasional tangles of rusted barbed wire and the rock walls that pierce through mature forest, assembled by hand one stone at a time out of rocks moved to make ploughing the land easier. Since the mid nineteenth century the amount of forested land in Vermont steadily grew to almost five million acres. That is, until recently.
Old homestead foundation reclaimed by the forest.
Since 2010, Vermont has lost about 1,500 acres of forest per year, according to David Foster, the lead author of a report out of Harvard looking at region-wide land use trajectories. That loss might sound like a drop in the bucket considering the millions of acres forestland in the state today, but it is a reversal of a 160-year trend of reforestation, and the purposes we are clearing forests for today are very different from a century and a half ago; the urban developments, paved roads, and rural housing units occupying previously-forested land are much more likely to be used in perpetuity and our forests will not be able to reclaim that territory nearly as easily as they did the fields. Furthermore, the current rate of forest loss is accelerating.
Changes in Forest Cover by State
Two thirds of forestland in Vermont is privately owned and most of those landowners are nearing or past the age of retirement. As their families inherit the land many of the properties will be sold, subdivided, and developed. Even when divided properties remain forested, parcels are getting smaller and smaller, making it more difficult to manage forests at a landscape level. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past and need to have conversations as communities to decide how this land should be treated. We can live within the cleared footprint already established and there are smart ways to develop that allow for more people to own homes and for increases in agricultural production without further degrading and cutting into our forests.
Winooski River 2004- landscape mostly forested
Landscape Change Program, University of Vermont
Winooski River 1927- landscape mostly cleared
Special Collections, University of Vermont Libraries
Vermont is not unique in this turn back toward deforestation. After more than a century of forest growth, New England as a whole peaked in forest cover back in the early 1980s and has since lost forest cover at an accelerating pace to about 25,000 acres of forest every year today. Meanwhile, the rate of land conservation has slowed dramatically, from 150,000 acres per year 20 years ago to only 50,000 acres per year today. It is clear that we need to dramatically increase the rate of land conservation if we are to protect our forests and maintain a landscape with clean air and water, nutrient-rich soils, healthy wildlife populations, and plentiful outdoor recreational opportunities. Soon The Orianne Society will be launching its Great Northern Forests Initiative and land conservation will be a very integral part of the work we are doing.
As this project moves forward I will periodically take the time to introduce various aspects of the northern forests to the Orianne community. Forests aren’t just trees, they are complex systems home to multi-species interactions, complicated ecological processes, intertwined food webs, and host to a lot of peculiar plant and animal species that most people never have a chance to interact with. While The Orianne Society works to protect those forests, I’ll try my hardest to show you all what we’re conserving so we can all have a better appreciation of what we have gained in the last 160 years, and what we now stand to lose. The more familiar people are with the many faces of the forest, the more inclined we will all be to protect them.