A question that members have asked the Vermont Land Trust is, how does the organization go about deciding what land to conserve?
It’s a process that requires careful consideration, particularly when it comes to forestland. Because so much of Vermont is forested—76 percent —VLT has to carefully prioritize where to focus outreach efforts and apply the limited amount of money available for forest conservation.
“When I look at my region, at least half of it is forestland,” explains VLT’s Donald Campbell, who works in southwestern Vermont. “This has been the challenge all along: What’s the best way to focus on the most important areas?
That’s where VLT’s new forestland prioritization map comes in. This map uses technology and data to determine priority forestland, taking into account timber resources and the land’s value for plants, wildlife, and water. “We looked at elevation, slope, soil, USDA hardiness zone, and bedrock to predict the best places for trees to grow,” explained VLT’s Jon Osborne, who used GIS technology to create the map.
“We have partnered with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife over the past 10 years to develop data on wildlife travel corridors, habitat blocks, and diverse landscapes. This map builds on that work.”
The data will help VLT be deliberate in future conservation work as well as with land stewardship efforts on previously conserved land. Once the map was developed, VLT staff began using it to help focus their work, supplementing their knowledge of regional conservation priorities, and factors such as rivers, trails, and local economies.
The development of the map comes at a time when Vermont is losing forestland for the first time in a century. Weighing this, and the limited funding available for forest conservation, VLT is using proceeds from the sale of some of the Atlas Timberlands (more than a dozen forest parcels VLT purchased with The Nature Conservancy two decades ago) to protect more forestland.
“Having funds specifically for forest conservation will make a big difference in what we are able to achieve,” said VLT’s Siobhan Smith. “We realize that this is a special opportunity to conserve a significant amount of forestland and are approaching it very deliberately; the creation of this map is an important first step.”
When forestland is conserved, it is protected by conservation easements that have strong forest management requirements and water-quality provisions for streams, wetlands, and vernal pools—all of which are essential to healthy forests.
According to VLT conservation biologist Liz Thompson, variety is also key. “The idea is that if you protect a diversity of physical landscape features, you will provide habitat for a diverse array of species,” she says. “Mountaintops host alpine species like Bicknell’s thrush and Bigelow’s sedge, while rivershores provide habitat for the rare cobblestone tiger beetle and Jesup’s milk vetch. So we need a variety of elevations, bedrock types, and soil types represented in our conserved lands.”
As the climate changes, the underlying qualities of the land will ensure diversity, even if that diversity looks different.
Forestland is also critical to Vermont’s economy, explains VLT’s Carl Powden, who works with landowners in the northern Green Mountains. Carl stresses the importance of protecting larger parcels, not only for creating safe travel corridors for wildlife, but also because timber harvesting and sugaring is so important to the state’s economy and culture. With smaller parcels, the sights and sounds of logging are more apparent to neighbors who might be bothered by the activity. Also, because of economies of scale, it is more financially viable for a logger or sugarmaker to work on a larger parcel.
An example of high priority forestland is the 18,000-acre Taylor Valley region of Chelsea, Vershire, Strafford, and Tunbridge, where a community-led initiative seeks to conserve land. The valley has few roads, large areas of managed forest, and is used for hunting and recreation. “
”Large undeveloped areas like Taylor Valley are increasingly rare,” said VLT’s Bob Linck, who works in central Vermont. “When we looked at the data, we found this area has excellent forest soils and is also very important for a functioning ecosystem, with healthy and connected plant and animal communities. That so many people are dedicated to conservation there also makes it a priority for us.”
Further south, Donald Campbell is focusing on large tracts in the Taconic region, which has unique geography for Vermont.
The area has a layer of limestone that makes the soil very productive, and conserving this land fits into a larger, four-state effort protecting the Berkshire-Taconic area. To that end, Donald is working with landowners in an area surrounding the conserved Merck Forest & Farmland Center, North Pawlet Hills Natural Area, and Equinox Preserve.
“It ties together the large conservation efforts in the Taconics, into a big block that makes sense,” Donald says. “We’re really looking at what are the most productive spots, and at creating a connected landscape that values and supports human, plant, and animal needs.”
Photo credits: Bears by Roger Irwin, forest by Caleb Kenna