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Taking a Stand at Telephone Gap

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

by Zack Porter

Don't miss out on two great opportunities to get involved this fall:

  1. Join us on Wednesday, Sept 28th in Rutland or online for a special presentation by Standing Trees, Biofuelwatch, and the Save Public Forests Coalition about threats to public forests, including the proposed Telephone Gap logging project. Learn more here.

  2. Take a hike on Sunday, October 9th with Standing Trees volunteer leaders up to beautiful Farr Peak for a bird's-eye view of what's at stake in the proposed Telephone Gap logging project. Learn more here.

August 16, 2022

Mountains and sky over a lake.
Standing Trees volunteer Alan Pierce measures an old tree in the proposed Telephone Gap project area. Photo: Sarah Stott.

Telephone Gap probably isn’t a spot on the map most Vermonters had heard of until recently. Thanks to the Green Mountain National Forest, Telephone Gap will go down in history as a symbol of where Vermonters stood up and took back their public forests.

As if 40,000-acres of logging approved in the last six years wasn’t insult enough (that’s an area equal to four cities of Burlington), the the US Forest Service wants to log up to another 11,000-acres in the so-called Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project. To place this in context, the US Forest Service has put more than ten-percent of the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) under contract for logging (or soon to be under contract), more than at any point in the last several decades. Equally (or more) tragic, the GMNF is targeting many of the oldest and wildest forested regions of Vermont. Because of the potential scale of impact, the project was recently highlighted among the top 10 worst Forest Service logging projects for the climate, nationwide.

If “Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project” sounds like gobbledygook, you’re onto something. By custom, federal agencies employ obscure names for timber sales to trivialize the destruction. Naming is powerful: place-(re)naming was a key strategy for erasing Abenaki culture from this land we now call Vermont. The Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project furthers this erasure, reducing resplendent 100 to 200-year old forests to nothing more than a crop to be harvested.

What will it take for the GMNF to change course?

Telephone Gap project overview map, produced by the US Forest Service.

The proposed project location

Stretching from Killington in the south to near Brandon Gap in the north, the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project, if approved, would span 30,000-acres of majestic forests, beaver-sculpted wetlands, and pristine mountain ponds along the spine of Vermont. The dramatic rise of the Green Mountains wrings moisture out of passing storms, forming important headwaters for both Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River. The region’s dense forests and lack of development attracts a wide variety of wildlife, including black bear, fisher, coyote, red fox, snowshoe hare, and much more. At the foot of Telephone Gap lies Chittenden Reservoir, a popular recreation destination for Rutland-area residents. Telephone Gap, for which the project is named, is a saddle along the famous 272-mile Long Trail, which bisects the project area along its north-south axis.

What we know

Standing Trees first learned of the proposed Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project in the spring of 2021 (see news coverage here and here), when the public was invited to information sessions and site visits. As of early August, 2022, the project was still in development, but – according to officials at the GMNF – close to being advertised for its first round of public comment, called the “scoping period” in the parlance of the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs how the agency analyzes and collects feedback on its proposals.

Because of public meetings last summer, we know more about Telephone Gap than we do at this stage for most projects. The details are grim. About 85% of the project area is over 80 years of age, when forests are reaching maturity and entering into their prime. More than half of the forest is over a century old, with many areas well over 150 and 200 years of age. In Vermont, where most forests top out around 75-100 years old before they are cut down, Telephone Gap’s exceptionally old forests are a rare commodity. The project area also overlaps with a 16,000-acre Inventoried Roadless Area, one of the largest such areas in Vermont, and previously studied for its values as a wildland when the GMNF revised its Forest Plan in 2006.

The Green Mountain National Forest recognizes the scarcity of old forests. In the Telephone Gap Landscape Assessment, the Forest Service notes that:

“Old growth conditions are…rare on the Forest. Land clearing for homesteading and farming dramatically reduced forest cover in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Timber harvesting since land abandonment in the early 20th century has perpetuated more frequent and larger-sized disturbances than would be typical under natural disturbance regimes (i.e. from insects, disease, wind, ice, floods, or beaver activity). Stands that have generally remained unmanaged since land abandonment have the greatest potential to develop old growth conditions over the next 100 years.”

At Telephone Gap, a recovering, future-old-growth forest is at a crossroads. Will we find the courage and humility to leave it alone, or cut its recovery off early?

A hiker pauses for a view over Chittenden Reservoir from the Long Trail in the Telephone Gap project area. Photo: Sarah Stott.

Why this is a big deal

Old forests are powerhouses in the fight against the triple threats of climate change, extinction, and water quality degradation. Before European colonization, Vermont was dominated by old-growth forests. Today, old forests are functionally absent from Vermont (and New England’s landscape) because we continue to cut our forests down faster than they can grow old.

Recent scientific advances demonstrate the exceptional ability of old forests for sequestering and storing planet-warming carbon, filtering pollutants from water, and reducing the danger of floods and drought. Studies show that we could store 2-4 times more carbon in regional forests if we simply allowed them to grow older.

Vermont’s native species evolved within old forests. The scarcity of old forest habitat – along with overhunting, dams, and other major changes brought by Euro-Americans – helps explain the absence of species that were once common in the Green Mountain State (wolves, wolverine, salmon, lynx, elk) and species that are currently in decline (Northern Long-eared Bat, Bicknell’s Thrush, pine marten, brook trout).

Less than one percent of Vermont’s forests resemble the old-growth that once covered much of the state. Only three percent of the state’s forests are protected so that they will grow old and stay old. Telephone Gap, with its wealth of maturing forests, is exactly the sort of location where we should allow old-growth forests to recover.

Don’t just take our word for it

In 2006, the GMNF evaluated the 16,000-acre Pittenden Inventoried Roadless Area, which overlaps with the Telephone Gap project area, for its potential to be designated as wilderness by Congress, removing it from the threat of logging. In its analysis, the Forest Service noted that

“Wilderness designation [for this inventoried roadless area] would benefit those animal species relying upon mature forest habitats (e.g., wood frog, red-backed salamander, ovenbird, scarlet tanager, woodland jumping mouse and fisher); with the passage of time, these designated areas will become a mature and continuous forest. Designation would also limit the type and amount of human occupancy, thereby benefiting those species seeking remote habitats (e.g., black bear, bobcat and northern goshawk). Generally speaking, larger areas designated as wilderness will provide greater benefit for reclusive species relying on mature forest conditions. This [Roadless Area] is one of the larger areas (>10,000 acres) being evaluated at this time.”

More recently, in his Earth Day 2022 speech and Executive Order, Strengthening the Nation's Forests, Communities, and Local Economies, President Biden highlighted and elevated the value of mature and old-growth forests for our climate, directing the US Forest Service to inventory and conserve these forests for their unique qualities. The President’s order recognizes both the importance and scarcity of mature and old-growth forests, globally. In direct contradiction of the President’s order, the Green Mountain National Forest is continuing to propose reckless logging in some of Vermont’s oldest forests.

What you can do

  1. Sign our targeted letter to Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Haaland to call for durable protections for mature and old-growth forests on federal lands, building on President Biden’s Earth Day Executive Order.

  2. Use our handy toolkit to:

    • Submit Letters to the Editor about this project to your local newspaper

    • Send emails and make phone calls to the US Forest Service Eastern Regional Office and the Supervisor of the Green Mountain National Forest to oppose the Telephone Gap logging project.

Finally, please stay tuned for the release of the Telephone Gap scoping notice and comment period, when it will be critical for anyone concerned about the future of our public forests to weigh in.

Zack Porter is the Executive Director of Standing Trees.

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