by Will Lindner
On a chilly February morning, forester Jeff Smith led a dozen people through the Barre Town Forest to demonstrate the town’s multi-year tree-harvesting project. The 370-acre property inhabits an area where, a century and more ago, granite quarries proliferated. These were modest operations, sometimes supplementing their owners’ livelihoods from farming. In time, the quarries became inactive, and the farms dwindled too. The forest returned.
The Barre Town Forest is one of 168 municipally owned forests in Vermont. While these forests provide recreation, education, and timber income, surprisingly only 20 percent are permanently conserved, which guarantees their future as a town forest.
“Towns have a lot of financial decisions to make, and those pressures are very real,” explains VLT’s Caitlin Cusack. “Unprotected forests could be sold in a financial pinch. Conservation secures these public resources into the future.” The Barre Town Forest’s future is assured through a conservation easement stewarded by VLT. It is one of just 22 town forests protected by a VLT easement.
The Barre Town Forest has around 20 miles of trails for hiking, cross-county skiing, and snowshoeing, including mountain biking trails, and VAST snowmobile trails. An 18-“hole” disc golf course has become one of the forest’s main attractions. All aspects of the tree harvesting project—from the size of the logging equipment, to the timing of the work, to the distribution of branches left behind—were designed to minimize impacts on recreation.
Integrating such diverse interests can be a challenge. The guidance provided by management plans for town forests is helpful in balancing these interests. Yet not even half of municipal forests have management plans. VLT’s easements require that towns create their own plans, drawing on input from residents and VLT stewardship staff.
Farther north and east, VLT holds a conservation easement on 364 acres of the 424-acre Canaan Community Forest. The forest was given to the town by the Neil Tillotson Trust, which required that it be permanently protected by a conservation easement.
Chris Masson, superintendent of the school district and chair of the town forest committee, explains that the management plan promotes the values of the region. With grant funding, a local teacher constructed a three-mile hiking trail with kiosks, maps and bridges. The town worked with the county forester and a logger to cut timber and used the revenue to improve access to the forest. That operation also helped develop a sugarbush. Building-trades students are creating a sugarhouse, and classmates in an agriculture program will run the sugaring operation. It’s a project, Masson believes, that might increase peoples’ interest in the forest.
Inevitably, multiple community needs have also arisen in Canaan. Knowing a municipal water system upgrade was necessary, the town anticipated that a new tank might need to go on the protected forest, something confirmed by a later study. Due to the town’s foresight of allowing this use in the easement, VLT is working with the town on siting plans that will have minimal impact on other forest values.
Financial impacts are central in any discussion about municipal forests. Barre Town, says Town Manager Carl Rogers, lost around $8,000 in annual tax revenues when the forest passed from private to municipal ownership. “To replace that loss in property tax revenues,” he says, “the owner of an average-value home in Barre Town [about $175,000] would pay about $2.28, and obviously less for a home of lower value.” It’s a small amount for the benefits of a town forest. And, those benefits can be financial, too. Property values near parkland can increase and well-managed forests attract people who spend money locally. A study conducted by the Trust for Public Land, which led the effort to create the Barre Town Forest, estimated that the mountain bike and winter-use trails bring in $481,000 in local spending per year.
The responsibility of resolving conflicting uses of town forests, safeguarding their sustainability, and evaluating their financial impacts usually falls to volunteer boards. Committees in Canaan and Barre Town solicited public input, made difficult decisions, and learned along the way. Through interviews, VLT’s Caitlin Cusack, assisted by a UVM intern, is hoping to consolidate this useful information. “We’re pulling together case studies to be shared with communities that are embarking on similar ventures,” Caitlin explains. “These will provide a roster of practices that communities can reference for developing a management plan for new and existing town forests.”
Dave Rouleau, who spearheaded the disk-golf course in Barre Town, now serves on his community’s forest board, and is confident about its benefits. “We’re promoting a healthy lifestyle,” he says, “getting people there and not connected to their phones. These are the reasons the town bought this forest, and they continue to be realized.”