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The Natural Heart of Central Vermont
Logging Vs. Old Growth? Plan for State Forest Debated

Looking south over the Worcester Range from the Mt. Elmore fire tower. Photo by John Lazenby.
The future of a huge tract of publicly owned forest north of Montpelier will soon be decided as the state develops a 20-year management plan that includes timber harvests at lower elevations.

The land encompasses the Worcester Range, the geographic backdrop to our central Vermont community, where Mt. Hunger, Mt. Worcester, and Mt. Elmore shape the rugged ridgeline. The 18,772 acres in the state’s “Worcester Range Management Unit” includes Elmore State Park, Moss Glen Falls, Stowe Pinnacle, and Perry Hill, a popular mountain bike area in Waterbury.

But it’s the wild, roadless nature of much of the range that makes it unique. Unlike Mt. Mansfield to the west or the Lincoln Peak and Mt. Ellen sections of the Green Mountains above the Mad River Valley, the Worcester range is free of ski areas or second-home development. The property serves as both a reservoir of rare and endangered species and an internationally important wildlife corridor, where animals can move east and west, south to the Green Mountain National Forest, or north to the highlands of the Northeast Kingdom and Canada. 

For humans, it’s an untrammeled mountain paradise. Hikers on the Skyline Trail from Mt. Hunger to Worcester Mountain can go miles without encountering anyone except the occasional porcupine or moose. Backcountry skiers can carve fresh tracks and find steep, deep stashes of powder within miles of the state capital. 

Staff at the Agency of Natural Resources have worked for several years on the 20-year plan for the property. Yet despite those years of hard work, and a public outreach process that began in 2020, the plan has come under fire.

Critics say the plan sidesteps changing societal and ecological needs for wilderness. They argue that the state lacks the rules necessary for such a broad planning process, and that the plan fails to follow a new state law aimed at protecting biodiversity.

Missed Opportunities?

“I think this is an opportunity that the state really shouldn’t lose. There just aren’t these kinds of wild places in Vermont,” said Bodo Carey, a retired middle school science teacher who has written an extensive critique of the plan. 

“I’ve never been so passionate about something in a long time,” he said. “I’m going to make as much noise about it as I can.”

Carey has lived in Worcester since 1987 and has explored the land for over three decades. The plan designates upper elevation tracts and mid-elevation forests as off limits to logging, more than half of the 18,772 acre tract. But Carey said even more needs to be protected. He’s called for lower elevations of the property — land that could be logged under the state’s plan — to be set aside as an ecological reserve and allowed to become old growth forest. 

“Let it be resilient just on its own. This is just such an amazing piece to have,” he says. “It’s so unfragmented and undeveloped.”

State officials counter that none of the logging will involve clearcuts, and that the planned timber harvests are designed to enhance the forest ecosystem. The plan says 1,935 acres — or about 10% of the total — could be selectively harvested in 13 timber operations over 20 years 

 “Over 50% of the parcel is slated not to be managed at all,” said Danielle Fitzko, the commissioner of the state Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation. “In many cases, our management is thinking about how to build a more resilient, healthy forest in the future.”

She said the state is not trying to make money off the parcel by harvesting valuable timber. “We’re not driven by the markets. But we do have a responsibility to manage the land,” she said. 

Public Meetings Held

The state has held two public meetings on the plan, one in Worcester, the other in Stowe. At the packed Worcester meeting in December, many residents were skeptical. 

Early in the meeting, Stewart Clark, a former member of the Worcester planning commission, raised his hand. “I have a basic question,” he said. Jim Duncan, state lands manager and the official acting as MC, tried to deflect. 

“Is it a process question?” he asked, noting that various experts — wildlife biologists, fisheries experts, ecologists, and foresters — were assembled around the elementary school gym and would be available later.

“Yes,” replied Clark. “Why do we need this plan?”

“That is a great question, and I encourage you to go around to all the resource stations and talk about the specific piece,” said Duncan. “But this is not the time for questions.” 

The brush-off rankled more than a few at the meeting. And the short answer to Clark’s question is there isn’t a long-range plan for the property. Yet the pressures on it, from climate change to invasive forest pests, to managing expanding recreation, are growing.

“There never has been a real management plan for the Worcester Range, that alone is remarkable,” said Zack Porter, executive director of a Montpelier-based organization called Standing Trees, a group devoted to forest protection. “There are very few patches of land anywhere in Vermont that have been kind of given this blessing of ignorance … It’s really a blank canvas.”

At the Worcester meeting, state lands forester Jack O’Wril had a throng around him, peppering him with questions. Residents wanted to know how lands were selected for logging, how they could weigh in before harvesting occurred, and why logging was needed in the first place. State stewardship forester Bradley Greenough waded through the crowd to provide back-up to O’Wril.

“I felt like I was trying to get to the front of the stage at a concert,” Greenough said.

I caught up with Greenough and O’Wril later for a phone interview. They explained the state’s reasoning for the planned timber harvests.

First, they said the plan has expanded the amount of land designated as “highly sensitive” areas and thus off-limits to harvesting. This expansion includes more mid-elevation parcels and means 53% can’t be cut. 

Second, any tree cutting will be done selectively, meaning no clearcuts. As foresters mark trees for cutting, they’ll also focus on the ones that will remain to form a healthy forest, they said. 

“Timber harvests can be used as one of our tools. And we use it to enhance wildlife habitat and forest diversity,’” O’Wril said.

“We’re really trying to do the best for the resource,” added Greenough. “We’re kind of in the middle. We’re not trying to do nothing. And we’re not trying to do everything we possibly can by building more trails and cutting all the land. We think we’re doing a good job with the appropriate amount of harvesting in this plan.”

Greenough said that the harvests will be reviewed by state ecologists and wildlife specialists to ensure sensitive areas are protected such as vernal pools or deer wintering areas.

 “Even though it’s all in the plan that it would be approved [for harvest], we just don’t go ahead and do that when the time comes to do the harvest,” he said. “We go in and re-evaluate really with a fine filter and we stay out of those areas.”

Conflicts with State Law?

Bodo Carey, the retired teacher and passionate advocate for the Worcester woods, said it’s time to re-evaluate the whole planning process for the property. 

Carey said the state and the public have a once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve this unbroken forest and its valuable ecosystems. He said the state’s plan for the Worcester Range apparently disregards Act 59, a state law passed last year that spells out broad land conservation goals. 

The law, which Gov. Phil Scott allowed to go into effect without his signature, sets a goal of conserving 30% of the state by 2030. Act 59 says the state needs to develop a plan for reaching that goal and it spells out three conservation categories for preserved land. The most highly protective of the categories — “ecological reserve areas” — are designed to “to protect highest priority natural communities and maintain or restore old growth forests,” the law says.

Carey said the lower elevations of the Worcester Range, where logging is now planned, should be designated as “ecological reserve areas” and allowed to return to old growth forest. He questioned why the state seems to ignore Act 59 and its mandates in the Worcester range plan.

“They should be using the language and meeting the charge in that law,” he said. “And they’re completely ignoring that. There’s nothing about that [Act 59] in there.”

The public has until Feb. 2 to comment on the 20 year-plan. Noted climate change activist and author Bill McKibben decided to weigh in after Carey sent him his detailed critique on the state plan. McKibben noted his background in the science and policy of climate change. He said recent research shows that encouraging old growth forests is key to sequestering “maximum amounts” of carbon.

“We used to think that planting new trees was the fastest way to sequester carbon, but new data makes it clear that this isn’t true, and that keeping standing forests standing is the key to achieving this target,” McKibben wrote, pointing to his recent New Yorker article that covered this new science.

McKibben said the Worcester Range should be protected as an ecological reserve area. “Given Vermont’s strong commitment to reducing climate impacts, this seems an easy step to take,” he said. 

State Response

Act 59 is not mentioned in the plan, but Danielle Fitzko, the forest commissioner, said the state follows it as officials draft a “community resilience and biodiversity plan” called for in the law. She said the plan is due in July of this year. 

Zack Porter, the forest protection advocate with the Standing Trees environmental group, agreed with Carey that Act 59 should be applied now, in the current plan for the range. He’s a harsh critic of both the planning process and the logging component of the draft plan. 

 “There’s no reason that wood fiber needs to come from these public lands,” he said, noting that Vermont has extensive, privately held timber lands suitable for harvesting. “Why don’t we look at these public lands differently?”

Porter also charged that the state needs to develop rules first to guide major plans like the one for the Worcester Range. The rules would spell out how the public gets involved and what the plans should contain. 

“They’re doing it without the transparency and the accountability that should be in place for a plan like this,” he said. “And I would argue it’s simply unlawful to issue this plan with the rules that should be in place beforehand.”

Porter’s organization raised similar arguments in a lawsuit that tried to block logging on Camel’s Hump State Forest. A judge dismissed the case last fall. 

Commissioner Fitzko said her department is working on the rules, although she said they weren’t prompted by the Standing Trees lawsuit. “We don’t have to go to rulemaking to do long-range planning,” she said. “We want to improve the process. We want to get land under management quicker without losing that robust science assessment and public engagement process.”

Bodo Carey said the public was engaged in the initial phase of the plan, which included a survey. He noted that 85% of the respondents said the highest value for the property should be natural resources protection, versus 49% whose top priority was sustainable forestry.

Conservation Design

Carey added that the plan also overlooks other state guidance on land and habitat protection called “Vermont Conservation Design.” This concept, spelled out in an extensive paper published in 2018, outlines a science-based conservation “vision” based on public and private land conservation efforts. The document, published by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Vermont Land Trust, recommends the state work toward a goal of allowing 9% of the forests in the state to become old growth, compared to the less than 1% that exists now.

“Here’s something they published; it has the ANR [Agency of Natural Resources} logo on it,” Carey said. “Yet they’re completely ignoring that move to old forest.” 

In response, Commissioner Fitzko said the state does follow the precepts of Conservation Design in the Worcester plan. One example, she said, is that about half of the management unit “will be managed to promote the development of structurally complex old forest conditions” to meet the old growth targets in the state’s Conservation Design.

Carey argued that the best way to encourage old growth is to let the forest grow old, not to harvest it. He is worried that the plan will go through as written. 

“I say pause the process and align it with the law from its inception,” he said. 

Managing Recreation

For anyone who loves to hike, bike, or backcountry ski, the Worcester Range Management Unit offers ample opportunities to get outside.

The challenge for the state is how to prevent certain areas from being overused to prevent trail erosion, for example, or mitigate impacts to wildlife. A more recent concern is unauthorized clearing of trees for backcountry ski routes.

“This is a special place; we all know it. A lot of other people know it too,” said Walter Opuszynski, field recreation specialist with the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation. “With that use comes the need to manage, and we have work to do.” 

Perry Hill in Waterbury is not part of the range itself but is a separate 547-acre piece with an extensive 10-mile network of mountain bike trails. The area is also an important deer wintering area. Fat tire winter biking has surged in popularity, so the state faces challenges balancing the competing human and wildlife uses. 

The recreation pressures are more intense on the western, Stowe side of the range, Opuszynski said. For example, the state wants to disperse hiker traffic around Stowe Pinnacle, which can get very crowded. The state plans to add a trail to make a loop “so we can disperse all that use that’s coming to that location,” he said.

The plan calls for improved parking facilities at a number of trailheads. It also mentions the need “to consider options for improved human and pet waste management at all trailheads.”

Backcountry skiers are often found exploring the chutes and glades of the range. But Opuszynski said some are cutting trees and underbrush without permission, which is illegal on state lands. “We want to talk to the people who are doing that [and] figure out is this the best place to be doing that,” he said. “If so, how do we manage it together?”

How to Comment

The state of Vermont is accepting public comment until Feb. 2. For more information, check out these links. 

Management plan website at fpr.vermont.gov/worcester-range-management-unit

Story map of Worcester range: storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/94206de25ee74af3b635e3b03eaf2caf

Comment email: ANR.WRMUPublicComment@vermont.gov

Comment form: forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=O5O0IK26PEOcAnDtzHVZxuhgOey2uQRAn-sNPreE7fpUNUZQR1pHRU5BUFpNVVlKTURWVEFWNDNTUS4u