I visited the “Waterworks” conservation forest of Vermont Family Forests in Bristol, VT with my Reading the Landscape practicum class last week and was very, very impressed. Here are some highlights from a few different angles.
VFF director and forester David Brynn spoke with us at length about mainstream logging practices in Vermont and the different approach taken at the Waterworks. Some key take-home points:
- Vermont tax law and the “current use” program is a huge structural incentive for continual logging using current market practices (i.e. “scientifically managed” forests to maximize short-to-medium-term financial income). It’s very, very difficult for private woodlot owners to not cut, or even to practice more long-term, conservation-oriented forestry, because of how high property taxes are when woodland are taxed at their “development” value outside of the current-use program.
- More bizarrely, this is a significant improvement over the pre-current use landscape, in which non-wealthy landowners would have no option but to sell when the development value of their land went up.
- David presented the vision of “community supported forestry,” using local wood resources to meet local building and infrastructure needs with local skills and local people, and managing forests as commons resources by community organizations rather than as private woodlots. He pointed out how some trees are very valuable resources for “localized” needs (like Hophornbeam for high-BTU firewood and mortise & tenon buildings) far beyond their cash market value as timber or biomass.
- The forestry practices at the Waterworks property have many overlapping goals, including education (they run chainsaw use and forest management workshops there), forest health (they leave lots of coarse woody debris and use uneven-aged management towards more old-growth-type conditions), and supplying local organizations with local community-managed timber products. Great polyculture thinking here!
- One big organizational distinction about the Waterworks property is that it’s managed by a non-profit and open to the public. David described how some local folks walk there every day of the year. People hunt there, run place-based education programs there, and in the near future will likely be able to be buried there. The whole project (about which there’s a lot more written at VFF’s website) is embedded in the culture and people of Addison County and the greater Bristol/Monkton/Hogbacks microbioregion. A really inspiring example of place-based land use.
We climbed to a rare dry oak woodland/savannah on exposed Monkton Quartzite ledge, and surveyed across the Waterworks property’s watershed. The eastern side of the watershed had been more heavily impacted by human activity before the land was purchased by VFF, and is the side on which forestry practices continue. The west side of the watershed was in “wilder” condition at the time of purchase and has been unmanaged since other than a) the upkeep of trails and b) the biannual mowing of a large upland meadow for grassland bird habitat. It was a stunning view from the ledges, the Chestnut Oaks were totally rad, and it’s so unusual to see a whole watershed being actively managed for both forest health and human economic products.
This watershed-level view brought to my mind the ahupua’a agroforestry systems of indigenous Hawai’ian people. Extended family networks would manage a whole watershed from high mountains to ocean surf, growing both the agroforestry systems and the staple field crops that were appropriate in each microclimate, wrapping watershed by watershed around the whole volcano. Much of this management changed with the Samoan and then English invasions of Hawai’i, but aspects of it remain in place to the present day and more is being brought back by land/culture renewal projects.
I’ve often thought about that image – managed watersheds encompassing a whole island, a whole bioregion, a whole way of life – as a metaphor for where we all need to be heading in our own local places. We won’t be practicing ahupua’a directly except in Hawai’i or other similar Polynesian islands, of course, but the pattern of deep place-based caretaking for the land and the people simultaneously could (and needs to) exist everywhere. And each place will express its own unique patterns of that caretaking on a larger scale. I got a glimpse of this for the Northeast at the Waterworks forest – I think it’s one of the best rural examples of renewing the commons I’ve seen or even heard of in this region (Land’s Sake coming to mind as an agricultural/suburban example, and Neustras Raices and the Philadelphia Orchard Project as urban ones).
Big thanks and props to David Brynn and VFF for being humble, visionary leaders working at the economic-cultural-ecological edge. Let’s do a lot more of this in a lot more places!