The 3,100 acres of the Merck Forest & Farmland Center in Rupert—one of Vermont’s largest blocks of private conserved woodland—has become an immense, diverse outdoor classroom. The massive property is managed sustainably and offers activities ranging from hiking and camping to serious botanical research. The bulk of the land was conserved by VLT in 2015.

Environmental education—connecting young people to the land—has long been an important part of the Merck Forest mission. More formally, for the past year the organization has offered lessons to 5th and 6th graders on topics such as biodiversity, decomposition, and invasive species.

State of Vermont educational standards for science require that 5th and 6th grade students learn about ecosystems. “And where could you better study ecosystems than Merck Forest?” asks Education Director Christine Hubbard.

And so, on a fall day last year, some 20 students and their teachers found themselves clambering about two very different sides of a woodland trail. One side was open and parklike, the forest floor lush with sedges and ferns. But just a few yards away small trees and brush were hitting the young scientists in the face, and the forest floor was damp with leaf litter.

The difference? Southern versus northern exposure. The students were instructed in careful observation and note-taking, but were still surprised at how different the two sides of the trail were. Several other exercises showed them different ecological principles.

“We wanted kids to have something more substantial than a one-day field trip,” explained educational consultant Jean Ward.

Fields and road at Merck Forest and Farmland Center

Actually, there are many sorts of education going on at Merck Forest & Farmland Center. Graduate students from the University of Vermont and elsewhere come to study the diverse ecology of the forest. Interns who live in woodland dorms help with forestry and farming operations, building hands-on skills and ecological knowledge. And for the more casual learner, the forest recently established what it calls a “Hiker’s Arboretum,” a guide that identifies and shows the way to 41 species of trees found on Merck Forest lands.

Established by the Merck Farm & Forest Foundation in 1950 from three large, declining farms and other smaller properties, the Merck lands occupy the highlands of the Taconic Range in Rupert, not far from the New York State border. Mount Antone (2,600 feet) and The Gallup, (2,585 feet) are the high points of this rugged piece of land.

A network of hiking trails and primitive roads wind through the hilly property, and there are cabins and lean-tos for campers here and there. Some 200 acres of open fields serve as a demonstration farm where pigs, sheep, and other crops are husbanded.

Tom Ward, executive director of the entire operation, notes that the property is “not a preserve—we’re still managing it.”

This, of course, is in line with the historical use of the land as working farms and woodlots. Careful logging is practiced and hunting is allowed in some parts of the property. Two large sugarbushes (3,000 taps and 20,000 taps respectively) produce more than 9,000 gallons of maple syrup annually, and two reddish-brown Suffolk Punch horses provide backwoods motive power for both the farm and forest operations.

Lambs

All this has gone on quietly and effectively since the 1950s, so it came as a surprise to Tom when he learned in a conversation with one of the Merck family, that while a portion of the land, acquired in the 1990s, was conserved with the New England Forest Foundation, the majority had never been permanently protected.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mr. [George] Merck intended it to be conserved,” Tom said.

Members of Merck Forest’s board of trustees contacted VLT and began a three-year process of study to establish a protective easement on the entire property. “Supporting Merck’s long history of providing meaningful education, public access, and resource management was our principle lens in developing this conservation easement,” reflected VLT’s Donald Campbell. That easement was adopted in December 2015. It is fairly strict in the core conservation areas of the forest, but quite flexible around the farm and visitor center areas.

“Anything we’ve done over the years in terms of farming or forestry, we can still do,” Tom explained. “But this easement will protect the forest for the future—helping us stay true to our higher selves.”

The vision of George Merck, who originally established the foundation, was to maintain a sustainable working forest and working farm, through education, recreation, and scenic beauty.

That vision, and the huge property it encompasses, is now permanently protected, ensuring that generations to come will be able to explore the Merck Forest & Farmland Center lands—and learn there.

This story appeared in our 2015-16 Annual Report. Story by Tom Slayton, photography by David Middleton.

Family walking on a path into the woods