What "Forest Health" Means To Us

 Steve Hagenbuch, Conservation Biologist and forester with audubon vermont.

Steve Hagenbuch, Conservation Biologist and forester with audubon vermont.

Earlier this month, High Meadows hosted a day of learning for our board and other funders interested in forest health and integrity. We gathered at the Green Mountain Club Visitor Center, in Waterbury Center, and started the day with a morning walk guided by Steve Hagenbuch, conservation biologist and forester with Audubon Vermont. The trail we walked began in the bright meadow surrounding the Green Mountain Club. Just as we started, Steve asked, “Are we in a forest now?”  

It wasn’t a trick question. The grasses and wildflowers around us were likely mowed annually to maintain the meadow— this wasn’t a forest. But Steve repeated the question as we headed towards the grassy edge and border of deeper woods. We became unsure about when, exactly, the “forest” began.  Even as we noticed the cover of trees around us growing denser, our answers to the question never sounded totally confident. Is that what it means to be in a forest, to be among bunch of trees?

After our walk, Commissioner Michael Snyder, of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, explained that, when the Department is talking about “health and integrity,” they’re talking about the long-term capacity of the forest ecosystem for self-renewal. Often, when people talk about forest health, Commissioner Snyder said, they really mean tree health. Much of our focus is on negative indicators, like the presence of invasive insects or diseases afflicting trees.  Commissioner Snyder described the forest as a living assembly of patterns and functional processes, and people are a part of it.

Later in the day, Dr. Cheryl Morse, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, asked us to interrogate a different sort of place-name popular in Vermont: “What is a working landscape?” The term itself is vague and flexible. Dr. Morse shared research, forthcoming in the journal Society & Natural Resources, about how different Vermonters define the working landscape, who finds the term meaningful, and who doesn’t. In its flexibility, the term has the potential to be bent into exclusivity, but it also has the potential to connect Vermonters across sectors and strata. We’ll be excited to think and share more about that research once it’s published. For now, we’re thinking about the importance of questioning the assumptions we hold about the landscape we think we’re serving, of defining for others how we see the land and explaining what makes it meaningful to us.

 coming out of the woods on the green mountain club Visitor Center’s “Short Trail.”

coming out of the woods on the green mountain club Visitor Center’s “Short Trail.”

Are we in a forest now? Are we in a working landscape now? These places have blurry borders, and they’re different for different Vermonters. High Meadows recently released a Request for Proposals for improving forest health and integrity in Vermont. We’re asking our applicants to clearly articulate the principles and values that underlie their approaches— we want to understand what forest health means to them.

During our discussion at the Green Mountain Club, Commissioner Snyder shared a quote from Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Lose any one component of the ecosystem, and you threaten the forest as a whole. Likewise, anyone working to improve forest health should keep in mind and seek to understand the perspectives and interests of everyone who cares about—or depends on—Vermont’s forested, working landscape.