A subscriber from southeastern Vermont, Katie Bowen, contacted us in the spring to ask advice about the problems she and her husband, Mark, were having with neighbors who were complaining about the Bowens’ small-scale firewood business. The town was attempting to mediate, and here’s how she recounted a meeting she’d just been to: “It was extremely tense. We had a lot of community support, but the few neighbors who run an artist’s-retreat-type business seem unwilling to compromise. They complained not only about the firewood production but about our farming in general.
They don’t believe our farm is in an appropriate site (despite the land’s long ag heritage). We have a site visit scheduled with the Development Review Board on May 5. Hopefully, when they hear the firewood processor run and see that it is just a part of our diversified farm, they will give us a permit. I worry, though, that without the State laws changing [to recognize firewood production as an agricultural endeavor] this will continue to happen across Vermont as the state becomes more residential. A longtime Putney resident tried to drive the point home that a diversified farm can’t be cherry-picked to include what neighbors think is appropriate. A diversified farm only works when all the pieces are in place. Sorry...I’m not very eloquent this morning. I’m just so saddened that in this town I grew up in that some people who heat with wood just don’t want it produced in their backyard.”
I’ve had first-hand experience with this type of thing in the rural Vermont town I grew up in, and my knee-jerk reaction is to use this column as a bully pulpit to call out the NIMBY neighbor. But I have a head full of turtles right now, after reading David Carrol’s book A Swampwalker’s Journey and Greg Lowell’s essay on the back page of this issue. And the nature writing has me seeing parallels between the Bowens’ problems and those that animals face as they try to navigate our increasingly human-dominated world. “We line the wetland with houses, then ask what we can do to help the turtles,” writes Carrol. We fragment the landscape, then ask what we can do to help the farmers and wood cutters. Looking at things this way, turtle-smooshing cars and firewood-allergic NIMBYs aren’t the real issues; they’re merely symptoms of the same problem.
Forest fragmentation, the wonky term that refers to the act of carving up land into smaller and smaller parcels, intensifies conflicts between humans and nature, as well as between humans and humans. It’s been in the news in Vermont lately, as conservation groups rally to raise awareness of the problem. According to a lengthy report issued by the Vermont Department of Forest Parks and Recreation this spring – read it at http://fpr.vermont.gov/node/1237 – the rate of development in Vermont is increasing twice as fast as the state’s population, a problem compounded by the fact that population growth is occurring mostly in rural areas (defined as communities with fewer than 2,500 residents). U.S. Forest Service data demonstrate that the state lost five percent of forests over 100 acres in size between 2001 and 2006. This is certainly not a problem that’s unique to Vermont – in fact, it’s old news in southern New England, where over the last century the average parcel size has declined precipitously. (In Connecticut, 70 percent of privately-owned forests are under 100 acres.)
The satellite image of the Bowen’s property (opposite page) is a perfect illustration of the concept. That’s their farm on the west side of the road, top right – if you look closely you can see the firewood processor in the front field. While those fields and the woodland behind them were once an ecologically intact unit, subsequent parcelization (literally) changed the nature of the place. Each of those house sites is a vector through which invasive plants and domestic pets invade the forest – biologists say that every building pocket affects an additional 30 acres of woods that surrounds it. Salamanders, goshawks, and flying squirrels suffer from the influx of edge species, which include not only humans and cats but raccoons and skunks and other predators that thrive on the fringe between woods and field… you’ve heard all this before.
What we don’t hear as much about is the damage fragmentation does to human, rural ways of life. Once a parcel gets below about 50 acres it becomes too small for any serious timber management. To pay the land’s taxes with a sugaring lease you’re going to need a footprint of at least 20 acres of intact forest. The Bowens are trying to make a go of it selling pastured meat, hay, and firewood processed on a 10-acre parcel, but as this case illustrates, when there are neighbors involved, it’s not just a question of what the land can support in an agricultural sense anymore.
When field or forestland gets too small to pay its own way agriculturally, the only way it can generate income is to be developed, which means more houses, more neighbors, more right-of-way disputes, noise complaints, posted signs – the whole character of the place changes. Robert Frost’s proclamation that good fences make good neighbors is true only if the place is rural; get urban enough and you need good walls. One of the passages that jumped out at me in the Vermont forest fragmentation report was the claim that fragmentation may be linked to “decreased mood and higher blood pressure, faster heart rate, elevated muscle tension, decreased immune response, increased hyperactivity in children, decreased motivation for exercise, and a general decrease in longevity.” It seems like a stretch without context, but as anyone who knows small town politics can attest, what the Bowens and their neighbors are going through will certainly elicit at least the first four items on that list.
Development and population growth is going to happen; we can’t build moats around our rural communities, or tell our neighbors to forgo building houses or having children. We all live in houses that sit on land that was once a forest. But we can do a better job managing human populations. Part of this involves simply considering nature and wildlife as we make our development decisions. In Swampwalker’s Journal, Carroll writes, after seeing wetland after wetland destroyed in the name of human progress: “somehow the solution is never allowed to be a pulling back to a respectful distance from the natural landscape, finding a proper human proportion within it.”
But a big part, too, is supporting traditional land uses, even if it means that you have to occasionally hear your neighbor’s firewood processor, or tractor, or smell their farm animals. If working lands are not properly valued in a community, then in a best-case ecological scenario the land will simply be gentrified. Instead of a field full of cows, chickens, and firewood (and all the positive ripple effects these products create in a rural economy), you’ll have a field full of goldenrod acting as a buffer around a fancy house that is heated with fuel oil and has a refrigerator stocked with trucked-in produce. In a worse case, you get more houses.
The magazine went to press before the Development Review Board issued a verdict in the Bowens’ case. Let’s hope that group had the wisdom to fall on the side of the working landscape. Local political leaders can help limit fragmentation by sending a clear message that forests and farms – even when they’re noisy and messy and sometimes smelly – are what makes the rural Northeast special and this status quo needs protecting. Specifically they should, as Katie suggests in her email, clear up any doubt that forestry is farming and that a farm should have the right to process firewood and sell it.
And if the neighbor won, here’s hoping this story can serve as a cautionary tale to other places in the rural Northeast. Biologists have fairly specific metrics that they assign to the habitat requirements of different wildlife species. Spotted turtles, for instance, have a home range of about a mile; they need space and connectivity within that footprint that allows them to feed at vernal pools in spring, then travel overland to lay eggs near swamps or small streams. I’ve never seen a metric that expressed this in human terms, but here we have an example that suggests that a 10-acre lot might be too small to sustain a rural way of life.