Farming Magazine - August, 2014


Vermont Family Forests

By J.F. Pirro

Landowners participate in a trail building workshop designed to help them meet Vermont's acceptable management practices for water quality on their land. The course is hosted by Vermont Family Forests and sponsored by the Lewis Creek Association.
Photos courtesy of David Brynn.

Emile Cote and his friends, Stan Smith and Vic Bean, are partners at Hardscrabble Associates. They are not foresters or loggers, nor do they operate a sawmill, but they are woodlot owners with almost 70 acres of hardwood - mostly red oak and maple - in Bristol, Vermont. Now retired, they were once a teacher-administrator, a dentist and a corporate trucker, respectively.

It's challenging enough to be a woodlot owner, but after a particularly bad ice storm in January 1998, the trio had 35 acres of damaged woodland. That's where Vermont Family Forests came in.

VFF is a nonprofit organization whose priority is to conserve the health of local family forests; it started out as a grassroots education effort in 1995. It coordinated not only the logging and sawing of the damaged timber, but also transportation and sale to Middlebury College in Vermont, which was planning some extensive interior construction for its Bicentennial Hall. The trickle-down effect was phenomenal.

"It was all damaged timber, but it stayed local and was used," Cote said. "The work at the college is just gorgeous. It was mostly character wood - not clear; full of knots - but Vermont Family Forests helped us get added value for a determined project."

After that, VFF helped the trio with a timber stand improvement (TSI) plan, which involved knocking down smaller trees and rebuilding the 20 acres that were hit hardest by the storm. The TSI was funded through a grant VFF brought to their attention. Cote had a handle on grant writing, but VFF's resources opened the door. VFF even helped him with tax laws specific to woodlot owners.

"VFF helps you to utilize group knowledge, because it's made up not only of woodlot owners, but also foresters, loggers, transporters," Cote explained. "It involves working together toward common goals to obtain the most value for the product. A secondary value is its trickle-down effect. It helps spread the wealth and keeps a lot of people happy. There's a great support system. All you have to do is call, and bingo-bango, there's assistance."

A group of volunteers poses with the timber frame of a soon-to-be-completed English barn at the Shelburne Museum. The wood was supplied by Ron and Karen McEachen of Bristol, Vermont.

At VFF, they believe there are three great conservers of family forests: Well-informed forest stewards, sound economic returns from ecological forestry, and a community-shared land ethic.

Carving a unique path

As a young forester, David Brynn, executive director of VFF, met with a forestland owner in Vermont. The landowner asked Brynn what he should do with his woodlot, which was mostly old sugar maple. Brynn recommended an overstory removal to release the regeneration that was established in the understory. The landowner said he loved the old, decadent sugar maples, and had bought the property specifically because of them.

"I learned then that what the landowner wants, the landowner wants," Brynn said. "He wasn't against harvesting his trees, but he also didn't want to compromise his values."

Brynn often quotes Wendell Berry, who observed that the two great ruiners of privately owned land are ignorance and economic constraint.

To combat the ignorance, when Brynn formed VFF he began with education, offering workshops and planning and laying out trails while also working to get landowners a better return on their forests. At the time, stumpage in Vermont was well below that of other areas. Now, VFF pays loggers 60 percent more than they would otherwise get, and landowners have seen a 100 percent increase on stumpage. The process is highly efficient because Brynn has forged partnerships that enhance land values. Since it's clear where the timber is going, projects are detailed down to specifications of log length.

David Brynn teaches a student how to use a scale stick.

It's a more holistic approach, and landowners like to see a finished building and know it was built with wood from their property. Through VFF, work gets done with great care, and landowners are as involved as they want to be. It's "low-key, careful forestry," Brynn said. Woodlot owners cut their trees without cutting their values.

Today, VFF's 70 landowners, who own about 8,000 acres, participate for various reasons, but largely because the nonprofit has worked to create ready markets for them by searching for value-added community projects, Brynn said.

Each landowner has created what's essentially a portfolio of what their woodlots can yield after they've marked, measured and graded trees. VFF takes that virtual inventory and goes to market with it, approaching architects to see what they need to complete a local project. VFF serves as a matchmaker and believes that the architects also feel better about a project that can use wood from local forests.

"There are so many ways to sell, but to sell an undifferentiated commodity is the quickest way to go broke," Brynn said. "With our way, when we go to market we can stand with the landowner behind every board. This goes way beyond the certification of wood. This is local-based forestry with a purpose and a plan, and with the understanding that we're all members of the forest community. We want landowners who are proud of themselves in a humble way. It helps that they're embedded in a project where they can see their wood in use."

To this point, what VFF does falls just short of what might be called community-supported forestry. VFF is not yet a co-op concept either, but both are possibilities. "We all need to be on the inside so it works for all," Brynn said. "A value-added co-op could serve a lot of purposes."

Community members take part in a Hogback Community College workshop at the Waterworks property in Bristol, Vermont.

For example, members could support small forwarders instead of trailers with skid loaders when it's time for harvesting and logging. Rolling the logs out from small landing areas would cause less disturbance on the forest floor and create better logging conditions. In Vermont, 75 percent of harvesting is currently mechanized, at odds with VFF values, so the nonprofit would like to shrink that number.

"Wouldn't it be great to get landowners to help loggers get such equipment so they can do the logging the way the landowners want?" Brynn said. "We try to start with forest health. That's the first thing we think about - the soil, water quality, biodiversity and our carbon footprint. Only secondly do we think about use, recreation and timber. It's our way of approaching the forest. We're certainly not a timber company. We're a nonprofit that tries to help people understand the relationship to their forest.

"Our role is understanding how a forest maintains itself, and how we as humans who need stuff from the forest can maintain our needs. It's definitely a different way of approaching the forest."

At the town library, a woman and child learn about the Starksboro Town Forest, which supplied wood to build the library.

Brynn said that when he was younger, he was hooked on Smokey Bear, attending lumberjack roundups and protecting the forest. When he was 9, his family moved to California, but after high school he returned to Vermont to study forestry and became a state lands and county forester. Now 62, his ideals and interests haven't changed.

"As an adult, I began thinking that we needed a different message than the one I kept running into," Brynn explained. "Yes, the forest was beautiful and peaceful and it had timber, and that was OK, but what were we doing in return for them, the landowner? I began thinking that we needed to come to them on their terms and match their values. Vermont Family Forests comes out of what has really been a 30-year study of who the landowners are and what they want."

Extending a mission

Brynn is a firm believer in an interesting concept: If you can't express an idea so that it fits on a bumper sticker, then you don't understand what you're trying to convey. VFF's current bumper sticker reads: "Clean Water: The Premier Forest Product."

A broad-based dip is added to an access road to slow down runoff and meet Vermont's acceptable management practices for water quality.

"It's a new frontier for us, and it's launching us into a powerful place," Brynn said. "Water in a forest is like the blood in our veins. The amount of water flowing through a forest is a prime indication of how healthy that forest is. If we can keep the water cold and oxygenated, then we're doing a pretty good job."

In Vermont, bodies of water are considered to be commonly held by the people. "We should all be working our butts off to protect the commons, and we're letting landowners manage their timber and habitat with the freedom to be creative, as long as they're taking care of the commons," he said.

Are great people attracted to a forest, or does a forest attract great people? Eighty percent of Vermont's forest is privately owned, so it's an important debate.

Brynn admires the Amish culture, which manages to live and thrive within an increasingly global marketplace, but still maintains its own cultural and communal values. "They have a foot in both places," he said. "It's a concurrence. Even if we all don't get it, even if 10 to 15 percent of us get it - that a forest's health must come first, that we attend to the commons, especially water, that participation in local value-added projects is beneficial - it's a plus. If all of this works, then we should have no problem attracting other people, but right now we're working with people who want to work with us."

Dave Birdsall leads a Game of Logging workshop for landowners, put on by Vermont Family Forests.

Brynn has spread his influence and taught the model to others, inspiring what is now Wisconsin Family Forests and similar organizations in Washington and Massachusetts.

In Vermont, Cote and his partners, who order bulk timber harvests in one of four management areas every six or seven years, have used VFF in numerous ways. They've taken courses offered at the VFF headquarters and elsewhere, and they attend meetings. Although it's not required, Cote still makes an annual contribution.

Cote said VFF even helps those who cannot afford a woodlot to form consortiums to help make such an investment possible. After that, VFF helps with management and marking the forest, and ultimately with timber harvests destined for specific projects close to home.

Brynn called founding members like Cote the flagship of VFF.

Cote said, "I'm a tattered flag; David is the flag and the flagship."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.