COVID, Culverts, Climate Change and Future Vermont Forests


Tim Morton, State Land Stewardship Forester for Windsor and Windham Counties, visits Okemo State Forest in August, where an old road cuts through early successional habitat for the moose, deer, bear, pollinators and other insects. Okemo State Forest is an 8,000 acre parcel that includes Okemo Mountain Resort, extensive snowmobile trails and the 798 acre Terrible Mountain Natural Area. Photos by Erica Houskeeper

How Okemo State Forest is using one-time COVID-19 relief money to improve public access and forest resilience.

by Christine McGowan, Vermont Forest Industry Network There is only one road behind Mount Holly in Okemo State Forest. Originally built in the 1980s for forest management, the route now also accommodates snowmobiles and skiers in the winter, hikers and mountain bikers in the warmer months, and the occasional rider. For decades, recreation in the area was fairly light, mostly locals who knew the road was there. And then came COVID-19.

Tim Morton, state land stewardship forester for Windsor and Windham counties, estimates the area has seen a five-fold increase in recreational use during the pandemic, adding pressure to an aging road which was already in various stages of disrepair.

In addition to erosion from wear and tear, the original culverts were significantly undersized for the increased volume and flow of precipitation in recent years, causing washouts due to increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

So when the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation received $ 1.5 million in COVID-19 relief funding to deal with increased use, Morton saw an opportunity to fix his road. And to expand the possibilities for recreation. And protect the bear habitat. And improve truck access for a planned timber harvest. And address the resilience of forests in the face of climate change.

And it all starts with the modernization of a culvert.

Upgrading of forestry infrastructure.

“Without road access, you can’t accomplish anything,” said Morton, standing near a culvert in Okemo State Forest. “So we have to do the job when the money is there. It’s a long game.

Tim Morton inspects a new culvert that helps carry water from many South Mountain drains into the Okemo State Forest.

Morton’s long-term management plan for Okemo State Forest – an 8,000-acre parcel that includes Okemo Mountain Resort, extensive snowmobile trails, and the 798-acre Terrible Mountain Natural Area – carefully balances a myriad of goals in addition to recreation.

The road passes through early successional habitat for moose, deer, bear, pollinators and other insects. “It is very much alive,” he said, “and an important area where wildlife is raising and raising their young.” Protecting black bear habitat is a priority, as the region’s large beech population has been severely affected by beech bark disease over the past two decades. Morton introduces additional summer fruits as an alternative food source and considers red oak to replace some of the lost beech.

It also opens up access to a section of the forest that was inaccessible because the road was built for shorter log trucks which are no longer available. The planned harvest in this area will create canopy clearings to enhance the diversity of tree species and help cover the cost of additional road and trail maintenance through the state land and trail trust fund. facilities.

But which weighs on all of the forest’s many assets – recreation, wildlife habitat, and timber harvesting – is a much bigger concern, and now informs Morton’s plans in Okemo: the impacts of climate change. With changes in weather, temperature and precipitation, Vermont’s forest industry is shifting from monitoring and forecasting the threat of climate change to mitigating its impact through active management.

Floods and erosion threaten the forests of Vermont.

As wildfires ravage other parts of the country, parts of Vermont face a different problem: too much water. According to NOAA National Environmental Information Center, Vermont’s average precipitation has increased 6.7 inches per century, or about 0.7 inches per decade, since 1895.

“Our forest infrastructure must take these increases in precipitation into account,” said Alexandra Kosiba, Vermont climatic forester. “We’re not going to make a big dent in slowing global climate change through forest management here in Vermont, but we can impact the effect of climate change on our forests and our communities. “

Flooding and erosion that result from increased precipitation and extreme weather events can adversely affect forest ecology, displacing carbon-rich soils and damaging infrastructure, such as log roads, that allow access for management and recreation.

So let’s come back to this culvert.

“The original culverts were undersized in the 1980s,” Morton said, “and they are nowhere near enough to accommodate the increased volumes of water that come in short bursts during the summer months that we do. let’s see today. “

Tony D’Amato, professor and director of the forestry program at UVM, agrees. “With increasing rains and unexpected extreme events forecast for Vermont, if you want to access forested areas, you have to invest in roads, bridges and culverts. “

Restoration for adaptation.

Vermont’s land use history, which included the clearcutting of 80 percent of the state’s woodlands in the late 1800s, adds to changes in weather conditions. Although the forest has returned to Green Mountain State, many areas have not returned to their former levels of diversity. They contain trees that are all roughly the same age and size, making them vulnerable to pests, invaders and extreme weather events.

Forester Tim Morton grasses an area of ​​Okemo State Forest.

Okemo State Forest is one of the few places in Vermont where scientists and researchers studying forest resilience can test their ideas. “We locate these ideas 30,000 feet in Okemo,” D’Amato said. “Species diversity, complex forests, diversity of forest conditions – these are all ideas with theoretical and empirical support, but these ideas need to be localized in the specific social, ecological and economic context of a forest. “

“Forests cannot just pick up and move,” Kosiba said. “They don’t react quickly to change, but the conditions in which our forests live change quickly. Especially in the context of our ancient land tenure practices, Vermont’s forests are vulnerable to climate change, but we can help put them in place to be successful. At Okemo, part of this job is to increase the diversity in the understory by creating gaps in the canopy and removing some of the existing trees to allow other species to establish.

What D’Amato calls “restoration for adaptation” aims to restore the complexity of ecosystems over time to improve the resilience of the forest to the effects of climate change. In Okemo, this means examining species that are present in the forest’s makeup but in low supply, such as the northern red oak, and creating conditions for young trees to thrive. He also examines species that are not currently in the forest, but are doing well just south, perhaps 10 or 20 miles south, such as black birch, bitter hickory, and black cherry, and introduces them. to the composition of the forest.

“We’re not trying to rearrange the forest,” D’Amato said, “we’re just increasing the number of cards in the deck that are suitable for the future climate.”

From the office to the forest.

“The key to all of this is the forestry industry,” D’Amato said. “Without loggers to do the job, the plans will never leave the office. We may be excited about ideas as scientists, but the real infrastructure and the capacity to make it happen is our forestry workforce and our factories in the region. As we work to improve the resilience of forests, it will also be important not only to support but to improve the regional forest industry.

In Okemo, Morton hired Jarvis & Sons Excavating in Ascutney and PFJ Logging and Trucking in Rockingham. The first order of business is road improvement and culvert upgrading. Morton expects the timber harvest to take place next year.

“We want our forests to remain forests in the future,” Kosiba said. “With thoughtful management, we can help manage our forests during this crisis. “

About the Vermont Forest Industry Network

Vermont’s forest products industry generates an annual economic output of $ 1.4 billion and supports 10,500 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating. Forest recreation adds $ 1.9 billion and 10,000 more jobs to Vermont’s economy.

The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates a space for industry professionals from across the supply chain and trade association partners statewide to build stronger relationships and collaboration across the country. industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products, from high-quality furniture to building materials to thermal biomass products such as chips and pellets.

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