Forest Service plan includes logging on nearly 12,000 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest
On a weeknight in February, dozens of people braved icy roads to crowd into the bleachers at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden. Forest Service employees in crisp tan uniforms lined the room.
On the agenda? The Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project.
After years of planning, the Forest Service has a proposal to manage 70,000 acres of federal forest and private land primarily in Rutland County. That includes new logging in about 12,000 acres of national forest.
The agency says this management will improve forest health, but some advocates say it’s a bad idea in the face of climate change.
The Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project spells out a suite of projects regulators want to take on to meet their long-term goals for the national forest.
The 70,000-acre area is located in the Green Mountain National Forest, in the towns of Brandon, Chittenden, Goshen, Killington, Mendon, Pittsfield, Pittsford and Stockton.
It includes part of a 16,000-acre swath of forest that was once proposed for federal wilderness and that has no modern roads.
If the project is approved, the Forest Service says this will be the biggest timber harvest in Telephone Gap since it became federal land. The area hasn’t been logged since the 1980s and ‘90s.
Joe Gagnon was at the meeting in Chittenden. He started a sawmill in Pittsford in the late 1950s. He’s handing the business down to his son now, and he’s in favor of the proposal.
He sees harvesting timber as similar to gardening.
“If you plant it, take care of it, weed it, go back and pick some nice vegetables you get rewarded," Gagnon said. "If you don’t take care of it, you don’t manage it, you just let it go and then you go back thinking ‘Oh, my vegetables are gonna be right there waiting for me,’ you ain’t gonna get nothing. And this forest? It really needs some attention."
The Green Mountain National Forest argues this logging will make the forest healthier.
The agency says it’s in line with the Forest Plan, the overarching document that sets goals for management in the national forest. It argues even the 540 acres proposed for 20- to 30-acre clear cuts — about 20 of which are in that roadless area — will make the forest more diverse, in age and species.
Dave Coppock of Rutland City sits on the board for the Killington chapter of the Green Mountain Club. He likes to hike in the area and opposes the logging.
Coppock also attended the meeting in Chittenden, and he says a lot has changed since that forest plan was created in 2006.
“We are in an undeniable climate crisis — climate emergency — in Vermont, the U.S., in the world, by any measure,” Coppock said. “And that I think that calls for different management practices on our forests, and really counting how much we are storing carbon in our forests. Because that’s a very good way to store carbon.”
Scientists are still figuring out the best way to count the carbon stored in a forest over time. Still, President Biden recently signed an executive order that requires federal regulators to consider carbon storage and the benefits of old forests when making decisions about public land.
Forest Service officials say they plan to study how what’s proposed would impact forest carbon before making a decision about the project.
But there’s another underlying tension at play: The Forest Service and some advocates disagree over whether logging can make a forest healthier in the decades to come.
Zack Porter is with the old forest advocacy group Standing Trees.
Before the Forest Service meeting, he led a hike to an area in Chittenden slated for something called “group selection” — where a logger cuts patches in the forest, like a checkerboard.
He gestured to some trees about two-feet thick in diameter.
“[The trees in this area are] about 110-years-old — that’s the stand age they’ve reported on their maps,” he said. “It’ll be, if you look at it from above, like Swiss cheese in the forest. It’ll be these up to two-acre clear cuts.”
Foresters say this type of active management helps make Vermont’s forests more diverse in age and creates wildlife habitat. They say much of our forests are all the same age because of past clear cutting — which makes them vulnerable to pests and extreme weather.
But Porter argues forests will diversify on their own if we humans leave them alone.
“As these forests get past 100, 150 years, they’re really getting tee’d up to come into their own,” Porter said.
He says logging here will be like hitting the reset button on a century’s worth of progress towards old growth, and the associated benefits that come with it: water quality, biodiversity and climate resilience.
Standing Trees opposes logging and timber harvests on state and federal lands, and they’re actively suing Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources right now.
Back at the meeting, the Forest Service told the crowd: this is just one step in a multi-year process, and the plan can still change. In addition to feedback about whether to open up these 12,000 acres, they also want to know what potential environmental impacts they should study.
On top of the logging, there’s a pilot project to treat black ash trees in two rare swamps with insecticide. The hope is to save them from emerald ash borer.
The forest service also wants to plant about 1,000 acres of native species like red and white oaks and tulip poplars on south-facing slopes. These are species that are expected to fare well in Vermont’s forests as the climate warms here due to human-caused climate change.
As of Friday, the Forest Service had received more than 700 comments.
You can submit written comments online or by mail until Monday, March 13. There’s another public comment period in June, and the final decision is expected by the end of this year.