The State of Vermont has released a draft of its first-ever management plan for the Worcester Range, the beating heart of Vermont's central Green Mountains. The public has until February 2nd to weigh in with written comments. Don't miss this critical opportunity to raise your voice!
Join us for one of two upcoming public meetings about the state of Vermont's proposed management plan for the Worcester Range and learn how you can raise your voice!
In person: Monday, January 22nd, 6:00 to 7:30pm, in the Hayes Room of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, 135 Main St., Montpelier, VT.
Virtual: Wednesday, January 24th, 6:00 to 7:30pm, via Zoom. Register here: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZctdOGupj8qG9CAad68BJJNQZWiFT0XNe1w
Ready to submit your comment?
Check out our blog below, visit the state's website for the Worcester Range Management Unit, and submit your comment by the Friday, February 2nd deadline using this form or by sending an email to ANR.WRMUPublicComment@vermont.gov. Got more questions or want to get involved? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“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 at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, in "An Enduring Place: Wildlife and People in the Worcester Range through the Northeastern Highlands."
Sometimes the greatest secrets are hiding in plain sight. The Worcester Range is just that sort of place.
Nestled in the heart of Vermont, forming a dramatic backdrop to the State House in Montpelier, the Worcester Range contains among the wildest public lands in the Green Mountain State, including the CC Putnam State Forest and Elmore State Park. Rising three thousand vertical feet from the lush banks of the Winooski River to bare-rock and subalpine vegetation on the summit of Mt Hunger, the Worcester Range stretches from Waterbury to Morrisville and from Stowe to Elmore.
The Worcester Range is an exceptional landscape: 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 Northeastern Highlands; among the most ecologically intact and climate resilient forests under state management; and critical headwaters for the Winooski and Lamoille Rivers, major tributaries to Lake Champlain.
On July 10th, 2023, Montpelier residents learned just how valuable the forests of the Worcester Range are for flood protection. Thanks to the forested watershed of the North Branch of the Winooski River, the Wrightsville Reservoir was not forced to send water over its spillway to protect the dam's structural integrity, a move that would have added to the devastation downstream. How much more water could be stored in our forests if they were allowed to continue growing old?
The Worcester Range Management Unit is unique among state-owned forestlands because of its management history. No previous management plan has ever been developed for this landscape, and no state statutes commit VT ANR to any specific actions in the Worcester Range. As a result of benign neglect, the publicly managed portions of the Worcester Range, spanning almost 19,000-acres, have largely escaped logging in recent decades. Many portions of the forest have likely been rewilding for a century or more. While logging is common in the privately-owned forests surrounding the CC Putnam State Forest and Elmore State Park, the public land portions of the range exhibit remarkable wilderness character, on par with any wildlands in the state.
"The Worcester Range is both ordinary and unique. Ordinary, because it shares many of the characteristics of other mountain ranges in Vermont, a very mountainous state; and unique, in central Vermont, because it remains almost completely wild and undeveloped."
Because of this combination of factors, the Worcester Range has been described as a “linchpin” for the multi-state Northern Forest Region. A 2012 report by the Staying Connected Initiative extolls the Worcester Range as “unique, in central Vermont, because it remains almost completely wild and undeveloped…The Worcester Range, which is approximately forty-six thousand acres in size, is the largest piece of unfragmented forest land in north-central Vermont. This fact alone makes the range unusual — and very important as a large block of uninterrupted wildlife habitat.”
We couldn't agree more. Why, then, is the State of Vermont proposing to radically alter the trajectory of this wild landscape?
Threat or opportunity?
If the Worcester Range is a blank canvas for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the plan that it sets in motion is a clear expression of the state's values and priorities. How serious is the state about reducing downstream flooding? About addressing the extinction crisis? About improving water quality in our rivers and lakes? About trapping planet-warming carbon dioxide in our forests? Apparently, not serious enough.
In a survey conducted in 2020 during scoping for the proposed Worcester Range Management Unit Long Range Management Plan, 85% of respondents indicated that their highest value and priority for the Worcester Range was "resource protection." Nevertheless, the proposed management plan puts half of the Worcester Range Management Unit, or about 9,000-acres, into lands that will be logged on rotation. About 1,900-acres will logged over the next twenty years, or 10% of the Management Unit, much of this on the east side of the mountain range, in the towns of Middlesex, Worcester, and Elmore. Twenty percent of the lands deemed open to harvest will be cut within the twenty-year lifespan of this plan. Another twenty percent would likely be logged in the next version of the plan. Shockingly, the plan opens up more than half of Elmore State Park to future logging. Considering the Worcester Range is essentially a de-facto wilderness area today, the state's proposed logging represents a radical departure from existing conditions.
Over the past century, the forests within the Worcester Range Management Unit have been naturally rewilding and regaining their health without any need for interventions from VT ANR. As the age of the forest increases, so too does the the quality, complexity, and diversity of the habitat for Vermont's native flora and fauna, and the level of production of invaluable ecosystem services, from flood mitigation, to carbon storage, to water purification. Similarly, old forests are far more resilient to changes in climate and other stressors. But we don't need to wait for forests to grow old to reap the benefits of rewilding. For example, numerous recent studies (see here, here, and here) demonstrate that wild, unlogged forests are exceptional at removing and storing carbon, long before they reach old age (after which their value as carbon vacuums and warehouses persists, counter to timber industry myths that old forests become carbon sources rather than sinks).
The fact that VT ANR is developing the first management plan for the Worcester Range isn't inherently a bad thing - far from it. Plans, in theory, offer much more certainty for the future of the Worcester Range than benign neglect. But planning leads to decisions, and this means the planning process could either be a major threat, or a huge opportunity for such an important wild landscape. A good plan would take all existing laws, the best available science, and action plans into account. Thus far, no ANR management plan has successfully analyzed and combined all relevant documents and research into an overarching vision.
The Commissioner of the Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation is required to promulgate rules for state land management. A rule would spell out public participation in plan development, establish clear expectations for the content of a management plan, ensure rigorous analysis of relevant law, guidance, and science, and could even require the state to make decisions that prioritize biodiversity protection, climate mitigation, and resilience over resource extraction. After years of delay, this rulemaking process is finally underway after petitions and litigation by Standing Trees. But the state is moving forward with the Worcester Range planning process, unlawfully as we have argued in court, without these rules in place.
In shaping a vision for the future of the Worcester Range, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources had no shortage of laws, reports, and action plans to look to for guidance:
Vermont Conservation Design, the state's blueprint for biodiversity protection and restoration, suggests that approximately 10% of the state should be managed to recover old-growth forests and protect other vital ecosystems. Considering that less than one-tenth of one-percent of Vermont is old-growth forest, and just 3% of the state is protected from logging, the state has a long way to go to reach this vision. The state failed to look at the WRMU in the context of surrounding forestlands, most of which are routinely logged for wood products. The WRMU should continue to serve as a core publicly-owned wildland.
Vermont's Climate Action Plan and the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act (or Act 59) require the state to leverage state lands for the benefit of Vermont's native flora and fauna, and for the benefit of climate mitigation and resilience. The Climate Action Plan does not appear anywhere in the draft Worcester Range management plan.
Vermont's Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2020, requires the state to reduce carbon emissions, and mandates that state agencies accurately analyze the carbon emissions of proposed actions. The Worcester Range management plan makes no mention of the Global Warming Solutions Act, nor does it make any attempt to quantify carbon emissions from proposed logging or the end uses of wood products harvested on state lands.
The 2016 Lake Champlain TMDL (or water quality restoration plan) mandates reductions in phosphorus pollution from logging activities to reduce harmful algal blooms downstream. The Worcester Range management plan makes no mention of the Lake Champlain TMDL or how logging activities would impact stream sedimentation and water quality.
The 2018 State Hazard Mitigation Plan and a report commissioned in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene encourage the state to take actions that leverage state lands against the flood risk posed by climate change. The state failed to do any analysis of how the proposed management plan would impact flood risk for downstream communities, including Montpelier and Waterbury.
The Vermont Endangered Species Act and federal Endangered Species Act prohibit take of endangered species like the endangered Northern Long-eared Bat, which is known to occupy the Worcester Range Management Unit. The plan suggests that bat surveys will be done before timber harvests, but we would prefer to see the entire WRMU designated as critical habitat to help the bat recover from the brink of extinction.
Promise or peril?
In an excellent recent article in The Bridge, Montpelier's weekly newspaper, veteran reporter John Dillon described a dramatic moment at the December 13th public meeting at the Doty Elementary School in Worcester:
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?”
Good question. The Worcester Range has been doing just fine without a plan; better, actually, than most other public lands across New England. A backwards-looking management plan could radically degrade the unique values of the Worcester Range for generations to come. Good planning, however, can prevent disaster, as with the recent decision by VT ANR's Barre District Stewardship Team to prohibit the construction of a new ski lift through the Mt Mansfield Natural Area, in keeping with that area's management plan.
Take action today!
Now is the time to raise your voice for the Worcester Range. This is the final comment period before the state releases its management plan, which will guide activities in the Worcester Range for not just the next twenty years, but will also put the Worcester Range on a management path that is likely to stay in place for generations to come. The public has until February 2nd to submit a comment.
Please 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. Got more questions or want to get involved? Contact us at email@example.com.
Thanks for helping to Keep the Worcesters Wild!