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Expansion Of Dorset Town Forest Is Part Of A Larger Trend

Last week was a good one for the effort to maintain and expand the town forest in Dorset.

The town received two significant grants:  One from the USDA and another from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. 

The grants, combined with a local fundraising effort, will enable Dorset to expand its town forest from 40 acres to nearly 300 acres.  The town’s present forest contains a popular viewing spot called Owl’s Head, but access to the area is through privately held land. 

Dorset Town Manager Rob Gaiotti says as that land is divided for development the community was concerned that  access might become a problem.

“In another handful of years we could be sitting here without any public access to the town’s current forest that we already own,” he says.

Gaiotti says the purchase of the additional land will keep the existing parcel accessible.  It will also provide the town with a valuable addition to its forest.  The new land has a century old hiking trail, along with an old marble quarry and contains some sensitive and rare plant species.

“From a conservation standpoint, the parcel really ticked a lot of boxes and really made a lot of sense for the town to pursue this piece and connect it to our current forest,” Gaiotti says.

Dorset is not alone in viewing a town forest as an important community asset. 

Vermont Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation Michael Snyder says the earliest town forests were meant to provide timber and firewood. 

As time passed, they were also used to protect municipal water supplies. Snyder says in recent decades recreation has become a key reason for communities to establish or expanding town forests. 

In all, Snyder says there are about 150 town forests in Vermont comprising 70,000 acres. 

Snyder says each town has to weigh how it wants to manage its forest resources. 

“It’s a different approach than state or federal ownership. It’s really community based with a lot of local flavor, customized to the hyper-local.” he says.

Snyder says one consideration that always comes up is the loss of tax revenue when a piece of land is owned by the town. 

“Then again, those trees on the town forest don’t call the police or send kids to school.  They don’t have very many costs to a community,” he argues.

Town forests can produce revenue through timber harvesting, but they also provide educational opportunities for schools, community gathering spots and important habitat as land becomes more fragmented.

Julie Renaud Evans of the Northern Forest Center in Concord, New Hampshire works with towns across northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

She encourages towns to view their forests as part of an overall community development strategy; adding value to a place.

Renaud Evans says the number of towns forests has been growing fairly rapidly in the past 10 or 15 years. 

“In terms of the cost of acquisition, we’re currently in a very good time for towns to be considering acquiring land,” she says. “ There are a number of funding opportunities available to assist in the acquisition cost.  We think it’s a very important opportunity, especially for small rural towns in this region.”

Renaud Evans says on a national scale the establishment of community forests is almost exclusively concentrated in New England.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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