If you live in Vermont, chances are that you live near a town forest. Whether they are called a “Town Forest,” “Natural Area,” “Country Park,” “Conservation Area,” “Community Forest,” or “Municipal Forest,” town forests can be simply defined as a primarily forested property owned by a municipality. In Chittenden County we have about a dozen town forests, and one of my roles as County Forester is help communities manage these amazing resources.
Vermont’s first Municipal Forest Bill passed in 1915. This bill, which described town forests as “a tract of land primarily devoted to producing wood products, maintaining wildlife habitat, protecting water supplies, providing forest recreation and conservation education,” gave municipalities the ability to acquire forested land. Town forests were eligible for assistance from the State: as much as half of the cost of their acquisition and reforestation, up to $600 per biennium in 1946. This bill was well-timed, as much of the 75% of Vermont that was deforested in the previous two centuries was beginning to revert back to forest in the early 1900’s. This trend was bolstered by the Great Depression and westward expansion, among other factors, which forced many farmers to move out, give up on farming, and/or give up their land. Some towns capitalized on this trend to acquire future town forests, modeling responsible forest, and public land, management in an increasingly forested landscape. The 840-acre Hinesburg Town Forest, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of this, comprised of tax-derelict hill farms acquired by the town between the 1930’s and 1950’s.
As restoration and reforestation projects, town forests (in addition to private land), were widely planted with conifer plantations, particularly red, white and Scotch pine, and Norway spruce. These plantations were established with the European idea of the “regulated forest” in mind, the philosophy that humans should control every variable in a forest to grow timber as efficiently as possible. These plantations sometimes grew timber quickly, but they were generally not what we now understand to be “healthy” forests: forests that are diverse, resilient to disturbance and provide high-quality habitat and other ecosystem services.
The first generation of town forests in Chittenden County are some of our most iconic. In addition to the Hinesburg Town Forest, the Essex Junction Village Forest, now called “Saxon Hill,” was regarded nationally as an example of a well-managed (plantation) forest. This property, at one time over 800 acres in size, supplied water to Essex Junction beginning in 1905. It was joined by the 501-acre Indian Brook Reservoir property, acquired by Essex Junction in 1955 for the same purpose. The Milton Town Forest, which surrounds Milton Pond, secured Milton’s water supply starting in 1923.
New strategies are being used to acquire a new generation of town forests today. The LaPlatte Headwaters Town Forest in Hinesburg, Andrews Town Forest in Richmond, Preston Pond Conservation Area in Bolton and Maple Shade Town Forest in Westford are examples of town forests acquired using conservation funds, among other state, federal, and private funding sources. These, and most new town forests, are conserved, meaning they can never be subdivided or developed, ensuring that they will remain a valuable resource for generations to come.
Town forests usually support a diverse variety of uses, including recreation (walking and running, sometimes mountain biking, Nordic skiing and horseback riding), hunting, forest management, and education. I am particularly excited about town forests as places to demonstrate responsible forest management and show how this can interact positively with some of these other uses. The coexistence of these uses is not always harmonious; when conflicts inevitably arise it is up to the Town (usually in the form of a Conservation Commission or Town Forest Committee) to chart a path forward. This is done through a combination of management planning, community engagement and tough decision-making, and it is done by those who know the town best – its citizens. While having a say in how State or Federally-owned public lands are managed may be challenging, getting involved in the management of your town forest is usually as simple as showing up to a public meeting at the town hall once a month. Get out and enjoy these public resources, and get involved in their management. The shape that these lands take is, ultimately, up to you.
You can find a map of Vermont’s town forests here .
Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester. He can be reached at email@example.com, (802)-585-9099, or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.