Home Commentary Good Logging is not a Bad Plan

Good Logging is not a Bad Plan

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 Dobbs

I rarely hike at night. But now and then I walk up the hill behind my house in Montpelier into Hubbard Park, climb the clangy steel staircase to the top of the park’s stone tower, and gaze north upon something extraordinary: an entire mountain range stretching for miles and miles and miles with hardly a light on it. Utterly dark, magnificently mysterious, and seemingly untouched even after 30 years of these nighttime visits: the Worcester Range.

The Worcester Range is no secret, of course. That’s been especially apparent in recent weeks, as many of my Worcester-Range neighbors have commented in letters, Front Porch Forum posts, news stories, or opinion pieces about the state of Vermont’s draft 20-year plan for managing its 19,000-acre ownership in the range. Most of these comments object especially to the plan’s inclusion of logging among its management options and tools, calling instead for a permanent logging ban for the entire tract; they urge readers to weigh in with a comment to the state before the public-comment period ends this Friday, Feb. 2. I believe this absolute rejection ignores both logging’s value in general and its role in Vermont in particular. 

I have no vested interest in this dispute. But 30 years ago my friend Richard Ober and I wrote a book, “The Northern Forest,” that explored the history, culture, and natural and human ecology of the 26-million-acre region Vermont is part of. What we saw showed me that while bad logging threatens our forest and culture, good logging can and should be a vital part of both. 

Those objecting to the state’s plan have suggested that the Worcester Range is an unusually large, untrammeled, and healthy ecosystem (true) because “benign neglect” allowed it to “escape logging for a century or more.” They say we must now ban logging to save the place, because the state is suddenly paying attention to it by creating a long-range management plan.

It’s true that the Worcester Range has been treated gently for the past century, allowing it to recover from gross overcutting. This was no accident; it was that overcutting that inspired the state to start acquiring much of the range a century ago. The area now holds healthy populations of many of Vermont’s most iconic or rare species, from massive moose to short-tailed shrew, bald eagle to Bicknell’s thrush, sugar maple to dwarf mistletoe. Many of these have either thrived throughout the range or found there the small eco-niche they require. Meanwhile, the state’s ownership protects most of the Worcester Range from the real-estate development that has fragmented many large tracts elsewhere.

I hope I won’t offend my logging-averse neighbors if I point out that the Worcester Range became the treasure it is while being owned and managed — with a combination of intentional “neglect” and selective logging — by the agencies who wrote the plan they object to, which essentially proposes to manage the area by ever more progressive versions of the principles and practices that made it what it is. I’m baffled. I’m being asked to “save the Worcester Range” from the very entities, ideas, and principles that made it a place worth saving. 

This plan can be improved — but not by banning logging. Responsible logging is perfectly consistent with responsible management. Vermont is today covered with forests that were 80% leveled in the 1800s but have rebounded while managed and logged in many places according to increasingly sensitive forestry practices. Making occasional selective cuts within well-chosen tracts in the Worcester Range, as the state’s plan proposes, is completely compatible with forest health, human recreation, and carbon sequestration — all the good things we seek in a forest. 

Why log? 

In Vermont, felled trees form the foundation of a roughly $1 billion wood-based economy and culture as precious and rare as a well-managed mountain range. Logging provides engaging, rewarding work in communities where such work is scarce. The logs feed local sawmills that provide more such work; the milled lumber supports a local manufacturing and craft economy that in turn can produce everything from furniture to floorboards, wagons to windows, clothespins to shims. The local purchase of these goods generates yet more local income. And the overall supply chain leaves a carbon footprint a fraction of the size of one created by a conventional path.

Finally, logging in Vermont is the bedrock of a rich, geographically distinct culture of living closely entwined with a landscape that is as rare and sweet as a healthy, unbroken mountain range. When I immersed myself in that world, I found it trivially easy to find people whose ties to the land were as intricate, sophisticated, and deeply felt as that of any conservationist. When we hold them and their work at a distance — much less portray it as an evil — we compromise the diversity and resilience not just of their culture, but the larger one we all share. 

David Dobbs writes on nature, science, medicine, and music from his home in Montpelier.