Betsy Lesnikoski loved being outdoors as a child in Connecticut in the 1970s, but given her suburban surroundings, she wasn’t sure how to turn that passion into a career. When she mentioned to a high school guidance counselor that she might want to be a forester, he had to look up exactly what the job entailed. He then advised her to go into nursing instead, telling her “there’s more money in it.”
“I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and I really wanted to be in the woods,” Lesnikoski recalls, and so she ignored the advice. In some ways, it’s just as well that Lesnikoski didn’t fully grasp exactly what a forester is supposed to do when she decided to pursue the career, because the role she’s been performing for the last three and a half decades – as a forester for the Burlington (Vermont) Electric Department – didn’t even exist when she was in high school. In this position, she’s been helping to expand the definition of the forestry profession.
Lesnikoski’s true introduction to forestry happened more traditionally, at the University of Maine in Orono. Summer programs took her to the far reaches of the state, and between her junior and senior years she landed – literally – at Clayton Lake to work for International Paper. “It was a remote camp that was 65 miles outside of Ashland. In addition to a lot of French-Canadian men, there was another woman – she and I were the first ones to actually live at the camp for the summer,” she said. “We were out in the middle of nowhere marking trees all day and it was on a lake, so a lot of the comings and goings were by sea plane because the roads were so bad. It was a wonderful experience.”
After graduation, she took a full-time job with International Paper, first in Maine and later in the Adirondacks of New York. Just 22 years old, and with most of her friends back in Maine, she found the latter posting to be “rather lonely,” and after two years Lesnikoski left to attend graduate school at the University of Vermont. It was near the end of her studies that she saw a job posting for a procurement forester with the Burlington Electric Department – someone to oversee the harvesting of wood that would be burned to generate electricity. She had a little background from some grad school research she had done with the US Forest Service in Ripton, Vermont, looking at the effects of clear-cutting and whole tree chipping.
It was a timely topic. In the late 1970s, Burlington Electric began experimenting with burning wood chips in place of coal to produce electricity at its Moran Municipal Generation Station, located on the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront. It proved successful, which led to the construction on McNeil Generating Station in Burlington’s Intervale – one of the first electric generation plants in the country designed specifically for wood chip power. “As part of the permit, they were required to have a certain number of foresters, so they were advertising for forestry staff,” said Lesnikoski.
While it might seem that moving to a renewable power source would have been popular with the public, especially in the early 1980s when the nation’s energy crisis was still fresh in everyone’s minds, there proved to be a vocal opposition. Lesnikoski still has an old poster on her office door – a cartoonish, black and white rendering of an entire forest reduced to stumps and the bold warning that “The Wood Chip Plant is Coming.” “That poster was all over town at the time, so I was skeptical at first about applying for the job,” she said. That changed when she met Bill Kropelin, who was Burlington Electric’s chief forester at the time, and who was setting up the forestry program for the new plant. She saw the approach he was taking, and the new harvesting standards that had been created to govern harvesting operations, and decided to come on part-time in 1983, when the McNeil plant was still under construction. “I wanted to see how it would work, and it’s worked out because I’ve been here ever since,” said Lesnikoski.
The harvesting standards, which were required for the McNeil Generating Station to win a state public utility permit, mean that Burlington Electric Department’s foresters play a different role than that of a typical procurement forester. The permit to operate the plant covers everything from emissions and plant operations to the forestry end of things. So while Lesnikoski and her colleagues are responsible for getting wood to the plant, the typical role of a procurement forester, they’re also responsible for working with staff at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
“All of our harvests in Vermont require a pre-harvest notification that goes to a Fish and Wildlife biologist,” she said, “and they look at it for impacts on deer yards, wetlands, and threatened and endangered species. If any of those are affected, we modify the plan to make sure we’re protecting them.” In order to get approval, the harvests must also follow silviculture guidelines. In other words, there has to be a scientific basis to show that a harvest will be improving that forest stand for the future. “And then we have to monitor the jobs,” said Lesnikoski. “So we’re out on the sites as the jobs are going on, making sure the plans are being followed; that erosion control is in place; that there are buffers on wetlands and streams and stream crossings; and making sure that Vermont’s acceptable management practices, which are law, are being followed.”
There are only two entities in Vermont that must meet all of these requirements when conducting timber harvests: the McNeil Generating Station and the more recently opened Ryegate Power Station in East Ryegate. Which means that the harvests undertaken to produce wood chips for these plants are easily the most regulated logging operations in the state. While reassuring from an environmental standpoint, this does present challenges on the ground for Lesnikoski and her colleagues – not only ensuring that the standards are being followed, but finding landowners and wood sellers who are willing to work within them. “People who don’t like our standards can say, ‘Well, we’ll just send our wood to New Hampshire,’” she said. Or to some other low-grade wood buyer in Vermont.
All of the McNeil plant’s wood comes in under contract, usually through a core group of suppliers. These are the people who typically find the woodlots. Once a site has been identified, Lesnikoski or another Burlington Electric Department forester will visit the site to see if a management plan can be created that will meet the required silvicultural guidelines. Sometimes the land is part of a large industrial tract; other times it’s a private landowner’s relatively small woodlot.
While the wood products industry is usually associated with rural areas, the McNeil station brings wood right into Vermont’s largest city. It’s not uncommon to see wood chip trucks heading in to be emptied on the lift at the McNeil Station. Still, for logistical reasons, the station’s permit requires that 75 percent of the wood used be brought in by rail. The station operates a railyard to the north in Swanton. The train cars are loaded at 4 a.m. and arrive at the McNeil plant around 11 a.m., usually three to six times per week.
Most of the material comes in as chips, but the plant does buy some round-wood, which is delivered to McNeil, to the Swanton site as well as another yard it operates in New York; chipper operators are contracted with to periodically come in and chip the logs. “Usually in the spring, when there’s not a lot of work in the woods and we can get a good price.” Stockpiling this roundwood is an insurance policy that fuel for the plant will be available during times of the year when there’s not much logging going on, and it’s easier to store logs than it is to store chips, which naturally want to compost. Most of the wood the plant burns is softwood; “We don’t care what it is – the boiler is so hot it will burn anything,” said Lesnikoski, “but because of our price structure, we get the low-grade wood.” The species mix varies: when pulp mills began closing, more pine and poplar started coming in. When hardwood chips arrive, it’s usually just the very tops of trees, after the logger has sorted out the logs and the firewood. “We really get what’s left over after everyone else has taken their piece,” she said.
Managing the wood yards is challenging, and it must be done in coordination with both the forest management and wholesale electric prices, said Lesnikoski. The energy produced goes out onto the grid, which means the buyer is ISO New England, the non-profit that operates New England’s bulk electric power system. The McNeil station must bid (set its electricity price) daily for the following day; sometimes that price is accepted, sometimes it is not and the plant is taken off-line. “We have no subsidies from anywhere,” says Lesnikoski, so they are at the mercy of the market. When energy prices are low, the price they can pay for wood is low, which even in a depressed market for low-grade wood can make it more difficult to find sellers.
Now that Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant has shut down, McNeil Generating Station is the largest electricity generator in the state. It is operated by the City of Burlington, making Lesnikoski a city employee. While her office is in Burlington, she’s happiest when she’s out in the field, in forests throughout northern Vermont and New York. “I most enjoy meeting with wood chip producers, landowners, and other forestry professionals,” said Lesnikoski. “There is always something new waiting to be found in the woods.”
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.