Vermont plan sees forest for trees

A LUSH canopy of sugar maples and yellow birches arches over hikers on the trail to Silver Lake. There are rock overhangs from which one can view tree-covered hills in all directions. Silver Lake, off limits to cars, is one of the few shoreline lakes in the region that has no development. And it's probably going to stay that way, because of the Vermont Forest Service and a small army of concerned citizens. Their efforts have altered the management of this small 325,000-acre forest as envisioned by the United States National Forest Service. If local planners had accepted the federal government's 1979 land use assessment, by 2030 the Green Mountain National Forest would be providing 48 million board feet of timber to help meet predicted national needs for timber. And planners say that would have made for a very different forest.

``That area would have been bare,'' says Jim Northup, formerly on the staff of the Vermont Forest Service, stopping along the trail to sweep his arm across the hillside as he hikes with a reporter. ``What you would see if the assessment had gone through is widened roads for logging trucks, vast bare patches, lots of young trees.'' In addition, because the roads would be more numerous and wider, Silver Lake's quiet would be changed by Winnebagos and cars that would drive up to camp by it.

But this is not a story about how environmentalists got their own way. It's about how the Vermont Forest Service, state officials, wildlife lovers, recreation enthusiasts, and the timber industry spent eight years hammering out a plan that all - including the National Forest Service - could live with.

The 10-year plan, adopted earlier this year, keeps timber cutting at current levels, about 15 million board feet a year. Logging will be selective - older, higher-quality trees - and will be done only in the most accessible areas. Flexibility is built into the plan to accommodate changes in the need for timber. Half the land is set aside for back-country recreation purposes. Untouched primitive areas will preserve hospitable habitats for such quiet-seeking animals as black bears.

Here's how the plan came about: Every five years, the National Forest Service in Washington predicts what the nation's resource, recreation, and environmental needs will be down the road. With feedback from the states, it determines the capability of each national forest to help meet those needs. A target level for timber production is set for each of the 156 forests.

``[The level] was a number that was unsuited for us; this forest wasn't capable of doing that,'' says Steve Harper, Vermont Forest Service supervisor. Mr. Northup and others on the planning staff disagreed with the government's basic premise that the nation's need for timber would continue in a straight line. ``The assessment didn't take into account the possibility of a depression, an oil crisis, or acid rain wiping out all the maple trees,'' Northup says.

The staff felt that having just one vision for the future wasn't practical. Northup and Deb Brightman, former systems analyst on the Vermont Forest Service planning staff (the two now do consulting work for environmental issues), came up with four ``alternative futures'' and invited a group of 50 representative citizens to discuss them. When they voted on the one most likely to occur, the vote was evenly split among all four. Northup says that showed them the danger of planning for a future ``when we don't know what it will be, and at the same time closing off options.''

The planning staff chose the most desirable future, and then brainstormed around the question ``What is the role of the Green Mountain National Forest in the context of the region in which it is located?''

The Green Mountain National Forest is one of the smallest in the country; yet it serves a potential 70 million to 80 million people living within a day's drive.

``We determined that GMNF could provide backwoods recreation, wildlife, old growth conditions, and deer wintering habitats,'' says Northup. ``We felt that private forests could meet society's timber needs.''

The Vermont Forest Service staff sought citizen input. ``Instead of looking at conflicting specific uses, [the planning staff] tried to share their images of Vermont,'' says Carl Reidel, then chairman of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. ``They found out at the meeting that there was a lot of consistency of what people would like this place to be in the year 2030. I think people realized in order to meet that imagined future, it was going to cost everybody something.''

``What really made it work was Jim, Debby, and Steve [Harper, forest supervisor] making the rounds of everybody - hunting, fishing, and wildlife groups - in a way I've never seen,'' says Mr. Reidel, now director of the environmental studies program at the University of Vermont. ``People were interested in keeping the forest natural-looking, having a variety of recreation and a strong interest in wildlife,'' says Mr. Harper. After the meetings, Northup and Brightman would try to incorporate the wishes of the various groups into the plan.

``You didn't always get what you wanted,'' says Reidel. ``It made us think about all the resources, not just the ones we were interested in.'' Joy McKenna, treasurer of the Snowmobilers Association, says, ``They've bent over backwards to utilize everybody's demands for multi-use trails. I don't know any user group who's disappointed with it.''

The timber industry was less happy at first. ``We had felt broadly that the goals and needs of the industry had not been given consideration in the planning process,'' says William R. Sayre, a partner in the A.Johnson Company and a spokesman for the timber industry. The industry group made 20 appeals to the plan regarding levels of timber, but after discussions with the planners all appeals were withdrawn. ``We feel much better now that the Forest Service is willing to listen to our concerns. I believe that we would consider the plan an acceptable compromise at this point.''

Others give even higher praise:

``It was one of finest jobs of both public involvement and a really open-minded balancing of interests on both Forest Service and on the part of the public,'' says Mollie Beattie, Vermont commissioner of forests.

``We really ended up with a sterling example of resources planning. The thing they did so well was they understood where they were. The Green Mountain National Forest has to be understood in the context of New England and Vermont. You can't look at it as one of many national forests.... You really have to plan it on basis of the constituency of the region.''

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