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Let’s resolve to protect Vermont’s forests

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

by Rachel Smolker

January 27, 2021

As we bid farewell to one of the most interesting years in memory and welcome in 2021, it feels more important than ever to think deeply about our “resolutions.”

This year we need to move beyond vowing to trim our waistlines or waste less time on social media. This year we need to embrace bold plans, big hopes, and a righteous vision to heal ourselves and our world.

Covid lockdowns have certainly provided plenty of time for reflecting on that vision — on what really matters to us. With clear-eyed focus, we should be well-positioned to decide what it is that we are willing to fight for — be it ending racism, protecting nature, economic fairness or healthcare for all.

For me, serious reflection has happened largely while hiking in the woods. It’s something that doesn’t require wearing a mask and offers respite. Standing alone in the deep quiet of the forest, the drumbeat of outrages against people and our planet and evidence of ecological collapse all fade from attention, making room to focus on a different drumbeat — that of a pileated woodpecker, alive and peacefully thriving in a pleasant but seemingly parallel universe from the one in which we humans are painfully flailing about.

A mother and daughter hike in an old growth forest

Research shows that many people are finding more time to get out into nature. The soothing effect of a walk in the woods — some call it “forest bathing” — helps us to put things into perspective and reminds us that we remain part of the community of life that is much bigger and more beautiful than anything that can be Googled or reflected back at us from our computer screens.

Vermonters have the good fortune to live in a place with vast expanses of forests to roam, extending up the sides of our mountains and down to the lake shores on all sides. From above, the state appears to be carpeted in green with so many opportunities for exploration and renewal.

But our forests are not to be taken for granted, and in fact, we need to fight for their protection. In the late 1800s, much of Vermont’s ancient towering forest — forests that had been growing with little interference for thousands of years — were clearcut to make way for farms. Eventually, trees were allowed to sprout and grow as farms were abandoned, and now, in 2021, we have forests that are starting to recover some of their former glory. In some places, trees have achieved significant girth; but for the most part, we have a lot of forests that consist of densely packed scrawny younger trees. That is what happens when trees sprout in the aftermath of clearing.

Vermont has only a few tiny remnants of remaining ancient old-growth forest — small examples that inform us of what could be if we allow nature to take her course and let Vermont’s forests truly recover.

Doing so would be wise. New studies demonstrate the important role of healthy intact forests for climate, waterways, biodiversity and human health. Forests that are left alone, free of logging, perform all of these functions most effectively.

With sprawl and expanding demand for wood, Vermont forests are under pressure. Only about 2% are permanently protected. The rest are vulnerable. Private landowners will do as they see fit (though they should be encouraged to allow their forests to recover too).

What about the forests that we, the people, own? Our forests cannot speak, so we must speak for them. Of the roughly 4.5 million acres of forests in Vermont, approximately 19%, or about 855,000 acres, are public lands — set aside for the benefit of all Vermonters.

Unfortunately, Vermont’s state and national forests are targeted for a huge increase in logging — including clearcuts and construction of logging roads, potentially spreading invasives and pathogens into areas currently buffered from such exposure. These forests should be allowed to grow and prosper. We can and must speak for our forests and work to stop these plans and allow them to return to their natural wild state.

It is challenging to navigate the labyrinth of agency processes to make our voices heard, in particular, given that the terminology appears to be deliberately meant to obfuscate. Terms such as “early successional habitat creation” or “integrated resource management” are all, in the end, code for logging.

Covid has been a reminder that our wellbeing is intimately connected to our forests and the natural world. Our forests matter, and their future is our future. Citizens from around the state are joining together as Standing Trees Vermont to fight for our forests. Join us as we work to protect, preserve and restore forests on our public lands.

Rachel Smolker is co-director of Biofuelwatch and a member of the Global Forest Coalition. She has worked with networks around the world for climate justice and biodiversity protection for the past twenty years and lives in Hinesburg. She has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan.

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