One Family’s Experience with Timber Harvesting
by Karen Johnston
Among Vermont’s early settlers, the Kent family came to Wallingford seeking prosperity from its virgin forests, clear streams, and glacial soils. The land gave them enough to build a lasting homestead, and a family of educators, naturalists, musicians, orchardists, and farmers. In turn, they poured heart and soul into a life of hard work in dairy barns, farm fields, sugarhouses, and woodlots.
It’s a way of life that has continued since “my great-great-great grandparents settled in the adjacent lot and then one of their sons, Austin, and his wife Julia Elma, acquired this place in 1832,” explains Sandy Witherell, who with sister, Virginia Carpenter, carries on a five-generation legacy of forest management.
The family donated development rights to the farm’s 162 acres to VLT in 1990. The conservation easement was established under the guidance of family matriarch, Helen Kent Witherell. “Mom had a very strong interest in assuring this place was never developed,” Sandy relates, while “Dad (Sanford Witherell) was ambivalent—a good conservative Vermonter will have a little difficulty giving up total control of his property.”
After their father’s death in 2005, “We had to think quickly as to how we were going to keep this place. We decided on two approaches, which worked together: lower property taxes through the UVA [Current Use] program and start harvesting timber where appropriate,” said Sandy.
Sandy turned to VLT forester Pieter van Loon for guidance. “Sandy said he was considering enrolling in the state’s Current Use program, so I came up for a visit,” recalls Pieter. “We talked around the kitchen table and walked the woods.… When I meet with a landowner, the first thing I want to know is their goals for the property, the values they want to achieve: whether they’re interested in timber management and getting periodic income or whether they want to manage for wildlife, recreation, or to simply make sure the forest is in good overall health. That helps me know which foresters are best for the type of management needed.”
Amongst the foresters Pieter recommended was a Witherell family friend, Laura French, with Meadowsend Timberlands. Laura, and forester Jeremy Turner, developed a 10-year management plan that identified nine forest stands and also protected historic landmarks, wildlife, and water values. VLT requires a forest plan from any landowner who wishes to log.
“Conservation stewards considering logging need to take the long approach,” Jeremy advises. “Good things take time. To manage trees that outlive us by a long stretch, you must have patience and allow things to take their time; you have to work with the land.”
“It is the forester’s job to represent the landowner’s best interest in a timber sale,” adds Pieter. “Sometimes folks don’t want to spend the extra money for a forester to oversee logging, but in the end they’ll get a better job, it’ll meet all the use value and VLT criteria, and they’ll likely get better money for the timber.”
Kent Farm, for example, was able to take advantage of a fluctuating market and weather conditions when successive snowstorms hit the Washington, D.C. area several winters back. The sudden need for snow shovel handles created a high-priced market into which Jeremy was able to sell the farm’s ash logs.
Pieter advises any VLT landowners interested in harvesting timber to establish a long-term partnership with their forester. “It can be a mysterious thing, managing timber: there are so many aspects: different log grades, different silvicultural prescriptions, market pricing—all things people aren’t aware of. A handshake deal doesn’t protect the landowner. A contract with a security bond is essential. They help protect the landowner if something goes wrong.”
Standing in a regenerating field where spruce was harvested under his forest plan, Sandy quietly smiles and recollects, “My grandfather planted Norway spruce here when it became available, presumably in the 20s. There’s been two harvests since, one around 30 years ago, and again, in the winter of 2010.”
Does Sandy have any regrets about logging? “Not doing it sooner,” he says. He sees his forest management plan as a wise decision that has paid off. He and his sister’s self-supporting homestead continues to anchor the community of Wallingford, and this family, in a proud Vermont tradition of innovation and respectful use.
Join Us On the Land! Consider coming to one of VLT's upcoming events.