Home Commentary Hanging in the Balance: The Uncertain Future of the Wild Worcester Range

Hanging in the Balance: The Uncertain Future of the Wild Worcester Range

view of mountain range with dark green and reddish leaves, blue sky.
Looking south over the Worcester Range from Elmore Mountain. Photo by John Lazenby
by Zack Porter

“This is the linchpin, right here. The Worcester Range is the only place that’s left in central Vermont that is large in scale and almost completely unfragmented.” –  John Austin, Wildlife Division Director, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife

Sometimes the greatest secrets are hiding in plain sight. The Worcester Range is just that sort of place.

Nestled in the heart of the Green Mountains, forming a dramatic backdrop to the Statehouse in Montpelier, the Worcester Range harbors the largest wild forest north of Interstate 89, and it’s all under a single owner: the people of Vermont. 

Rising three thousand vertical feet from the lush banks of the Winooski and Lamoille rivers to bare rock and subalpine vegetation on the summit of Mt. Hunger, the Worcester Range stretches nearly 20 miles from Middlesex to Morristown. Now, with a first-ever management plan under development by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) for the C.C. Putnam State Forest, Elmore State Park, and other state lands, the remarkable qualities of the Worcester Range are under threat. The public has until Feb. 2 to submit a comment. Don’t miss your chance to weigh in.

Vermont ANR describes the Worcester Range as a landscape of “exceptional ecological importance”: it’s the largest mountain range in Vermont devoid of resort development; a pivotal wildlife linkage zone between the main spine of the Green Mountains and the Northeast Kingdom; among the most ecologically intact and climate-resilient forests under state management; and critical headwaters for the Winooski and Lamoille rivers, tributaries to Lake Champlain. 

The Worcester Range is also unique because — unlike most other state lands — Vermont ANR has never developed a management plan for it. As a result of benign neglect, much of the publicly owned portion of the Worcester Range, spanning 18,772 acres, has escaped logging for a century or more. While logging is common in the privately owned forests surrounding the C.C. Putnam State Forest and Elmore State Park, the public lands of the Worcester Range “[remain] almost completely wild and undeveloped,” to quote a report co-produced by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. In a survey conducted by Vermont ANR in 2020 as a part of the state’s planning process, 85% of respondents indicated that their highest priority for the Worcester Range was “resource protection.”

Nevertheless, Vermont ANR’s draft Long Range Management Plan puts half of the area, or about 9,000 acres, into lands that will be logged on rotation. Twenty percent of the lands deemed open to harvest, or about 1,900 acres, will be cut within the 20-year lifespan of this plan. Another 20% would likely be logged in the subsequent version of the plan. Shockingly, the plan opens up more than half of beloved Elmore State Park to logging. Considering the Worcester Range is essentially a de-facto wilderness area today, the state’s proposed logging represents a radical departure from normal.

If the Worcester Range is a blank canvas for Vermont ANR, this new draft plan is a clear expression of the state’s values and priorities. How serious is the state about reducing downstream flooding in communities such as Johnson, Waterbury, and Montpelier? About addressing the extinction crisis? About improving water quality in our rivers and lakes? About trapping planet-warming carbon dioxide in our forests? Apparently, Vermont ANR is not serious enough.

The state of Vermont is in the midst of conservation planning mandated by Act 59 and is about to unveil draft rules for state land management that would guide just this sort of land management planning process. Instead of completing these tasks first, ANR is putting the cart before the horse. And what’s the rush? The wild forests of the Worcester Range have been doing just fine without a management plan; better, actually, than most other forestlands across New England.

The draft plan is full of superlatives about the one-of-a-kind Worcester Range. Vermont ANR notes that “the property supports the range of bird and mammal species that depend and even thrive on … interior forest that can’t easily be found elsewhere in the state. Examples of these include Scarlet Tanager, Northern Goshawk, and perhaps even [the state-endangered] Pine Marten.” State biologists note the Worcester Range is home to many rare, threatened, and endangered species and has one of the healthiest populations of brook trout in Vermont. Is there any doubt that the forest’s health stems from the lack of heavy-handed management over the past century?

Just 2% of Vermont’s wood harvest comes from state lands. Sourcing wood products from the wild public lands of the Worcester Range is absolutely unnecessary for the sustainability of Vermont’s wood products economy. It makes no sense to conduct costly, damaging road-building and logging in inaccessible areas, jeopardizing the Worcester Range’s exceptional water quality, biodiversity, carbon storage, and flood resiliency, for wood that is much more easily available on private lands.

The wild Worcester Range is a Vermont treasure. The public deserves a management plan that celebrates this remarkable place for what it is. Together, we can Keep the Worcesters Wild.

For more information, visit the state’s website for the Worcester Range Management Unit, and then submit your comment using this form or by sending an email to ANR.WRMUPublicComment@vermont.gov.

Zack Porter is executive director of Standing Trees. He writes from Montpelier, at the southern edge of the Worcester Range.