Home Commentary Protecting the Worcester Range Wilderness

Protecting the Worcester Range Wilderness

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 David Hinton

With the addition of a recent purchase, the state now possesses 18,000 acres of remarkably wild land along the Worcester Range (the ridgeline on the east side of the Stowe valley). It offers a rare opportunity to protect a substantial amount of wilderness. Instead, the state has recently released a management plan, now open to public comment, that contains plenty of conservation rhetoric but in fact proposes no true protection for any of this land, and in fact plans for resource extraction on about half of the land

When the Trust for Public Land helped the state make the recent purchase on the east slope of Hunger Mountain, and the state applied for federal funds, the Worcester Range was described as “Vermont’s last undeveloped mountain range.” So, it is painfully ironic that the state is now planning substantial development. 

The state spent millions of dollars to purchase this land from a timber company, presumably with the intent of preserving it. And now it is inviting timber companies to harvest those very forests! In addition, the state has already constructed a timbering access road that has seriously compromised the first third of the iconic Hunger Mountain Trail in Middlesex (the eastern side of Hunger). All of this begs the question of why the state is spending large amounts of money subsidizing the timber industry, especially in a potential wilderness area. 

Following age-old tradition, the state approaches this land as a mere assemblage of data and resources to be managed and exploited, an approach on high display in the exhaustive management plan that runs to 270 pages. I have written several books about environmental thinking, including one titled “Hunger Mountain,” built around a series of walks up the Hunger Mountain Trail, and I think this approach is fundamentally flawed. I think it is in fact the bedrock reason for the catastrophic environmental collapse now unfolding around us. Instead of data and resources whose only value is the benefits they provide humans, we should see land as a community of beings, each of which has the right to pursue its own self-realization.

This assumption guided Native American cultures, who saw humans as integral to the land and kindred to all of its creatures. As a result, they lived here for over ten thousand years and the ecosystem was still intact. When Europeans came with the assumption that God had created “nature” expressly for human use, they clear-cut the entire landscape now called Vermont and devastated its wildlife within a few decades. This assumption that the land is simply “there for us” continues, as evidenced in the state’s management plan, and of course it dominates land use in the state. But something not unlike that Native American ideal is reflected in the vast system of federal wilderness areas — and here in the Worcester Range (I prefer the more colorful appellation “The Hungries”), we have a perfect chance to make it a reality in our backyard.

Luckily, the recently enacted Act 59 makes this possible; in fact, it requires it as a matter of law. Act 59 establishes a category called “Ecological Reserve Area,” which is essentially a permanent wilderness designation, and it calls for a large expansion of land under this designation. The Worcester Range is the most ideal possible candidate for such designation, and protecting the lower elevations on the east side (which the plan opens to timber extraction and other uses) is necessary to a wildlife corridor joining the Worcester Range to the Woodbury Mountain Wilderness. 

But the state’s management plan ignores Act 59 and only gives provisional protection to half of this tract under the rubric “Natural or Highly Sensitive Management Area,” which technically allows for disturbances, including even timber harvesting. Additionally, the designation can be reversed at any time by a legislature or governor.

Declaring the Worcester Range an “Ecological Reserve” would be in keeping with the numerous federally designated wilderness areas in the state, and would make it in fact among the larger such areas (federal wilderness areas in Vermont range from around 4,000 acres to 25,000 acres). And because it would further Vermont’s image as an ecologically pristine place apart, it would also offer more economic value to the tourist industry and producers using the “Made in Vermont” label than the value of the timber that could be extracted. In fact, this should be the first of a state-wide network of such wilderness areas, as essentially called for in Act 59: an eventuality that could become the crown jewel of Vermont’s image as an environmental refuge. I hope the state will reconsider its management plan and establish the entire Worcester Range as a permanent “Ecological Reserve.”

Meanwhile, I hope people will speak in protest. Comments on the management plan will be accepted until Feb. 2 at ANR.WRMUPublicComment@vermont.gov. The state’s website devoted to this management plan is fpr.vermont.gov/worcester-range-management-unit. Chris Bray is chair of the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee: cbray@leg.state.vt.us. Our own Washington County senator Anne Watson is on that committee: awatson@leg.state.vt.us. Amy Sheldon is chair of the House Committee on the Environment: asheldon@leg.state.vt.us.

David Hinton lives in East Calais. He is the author of “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape and Wild Mind, Wild Earth: Our Place in the Sixth Extinction.” 

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