by Mike Bald
This story also appeared online in VT Digger:
January 4, 2022
What do you get with a project that is three years in the making, is drawn from a larger plan that is 15 years old and based on documents from the 1980s, and looks to legislation from the late 1960s for its environmental assessment and public involvement criteria?
What do you get? A project that is completely out of touch with conditions on the ground and clearly unjustifiable in the face of global warming’s accelerating stress regime. This is the Robinson Integrated Resource Project, continuing this winter with major timber harvests on 59,000 acres of private and public land in and around Rochester, VT.
This project alarms me for one clear and simple reason: Vermont landscapes are under increasing stress, largely but not entirely due to global warming. Since the Green Mountain National Forest Plan rolled out in 2006, the forests of Vermont have experienced a slew of major disturbance events — not minor and not at all isolated. No, these events are major and very much continuous through time.
I know of these disturbances because I experienced them, beginning with Tropical Storm Irene. I also manage apple trees for numerous clients in central Vermont and can state quite clearly how rare and wonderful it is to encounter a healthy apple tree.
Most trees I work on are stressed to the point of sacrificing limbs in an effort to conserve and redirect resources. Sad to see such a state of decline, and I shall not even begin to outline the condition of other tree species; their fate is most uncertain in the face of depleted soils, climate change, and newly arriving invasive beetles. No, considering just the apple trees alone, there is trouble on the land.
That trouble largely arises from the change in precipitation patterns and the seasonal weather regimes. Since the issuance of the Forest Plan, the Green Mountain National Forest has had five dramatic, large-scale stress events. Irene was first, with impacts that are still evolving, but since that storm in 2011, Vermont has had four summers of either extreme dry or drought conditions.
There is a regional aspect to the drought situation, but it began in 2016. The summers of 2019, 2020 and 2021 were also extremely dry, with relief only in the second half of this most recent summer. Even with those heavy rains and overall wet weather closing out 2021, some locations remain abnormally dry even now.
What is the impact on plants when the growing season opens into such a scarcity of water for three straight years? Is the Forest Service giving this high-stress scenario any consideration from a management standpoint?
What does drought mean in practical terms? It means we need to pause for a period of time and reconsider our outdated plans and projects. It means we collectively decide to stop adding yet more stress to already over-stressed systems.
We claim to be increasing system resilience and biodiversity, but those goals are unachievable when we rely on old data and antiquated mindsets. I illustrate: If the land is dry as a bone, water tends to run off hardened surfaces. Particularly on slopes, organic matter is crucial to water retention, but most of the state suffers from soils with low organic matter. Ergo, dry conditions would instruct us to avoid compaction at all costs and increase buffer zones around water channels in areas to be logged. Double the buffer zones or, better yet, modify the buffers as appropriate to the land.
The bottom line is that wet areas, bogs and channels will function better if they are buffered by a complexity of living root systems. More water would remain on the land. Why does this logical step, this modification of the project, not come under consideration?
Maybe there are some areas that should simply have no roads and no trucks at all, since we desperately need the forest to help retain water in the hills. Without water retention, the Green Mountains will simply not live up to their name.
The implementation of a timber project that is not modified as conditions shift is irresponsible and completely contrary to the notion of adaptive management. Land managers are supposed to have experience and the power of good judgment. I say show me; show me today the courage to use that judgment.
Another reasonable action in the face of multiple drought years is halting pesticide usage, herbicides in particular. Since 2018, use of the herbicide dicamba for GMO crops in the Midwest has sky-rocketed. I submit that dicamba use is now a sixth stressor event occurring throughout each growing season and once again not at all acknowledged in the 2006 Forest Plan.
Perhaps no one saw dicamba coming, but volatilization of soybean fields has ensured that it reaches New England with all the other rainfall herbicides. Why would we choose to add yet more toxin to forest lands faced with so much stress? This seems like such a simple, logical question, but herbicide is what the Robinson project allows, repeatedly, and nowhere do we see courage to change procedure.
Does it get worse? Oh, absolutely. The chemical treatment program does not target invasive species exclusively. No, it actually serves as a tool to suppress beech tree re-sprout and colonization. It amazes me that we would add toxin to a depleted, stressed landscape for the purpose of inhibiting a native species. Those natives will be under additional stress from the assortment of invasives that come into the unbroken forest with new roads and equipment; count among those barberry, burdock, bull thistle and Japanese knotweed.
Where is common sense here? Where are the academics, and why does one hear absolutely no acknowledgement of the drought streak? Where are the elected representatives charged with protecting our livelihoods and our resources? Why the silence?
I see no room for excuses here; I simply cannot be the only person seeing these new disturbance realities. Who will act, who will speak, who will give thought? For me, the silence is truly the deepest disturbance.
Mike Bald is a resident of Royalton, VT.