John Hemenway was named Vermont Tree Farmer of the Year in 1992. His long-term commitment to the Vermont forest includes serving as president of Vermont Timberland Owners Association. Photo by Nat Hemenway.
We live in an age in which impatience is the cultural norm. As a society, we Americans seek—if not demand—instant gratification in almost every aspect of our lives. Against this background, where time is measured in nanoseconds, forestland managers must think in terms of generations.
Forty-four years ago, John Hemenway bought his first piece of land in the Taylor Valley sertion of Strafford. In the ensuing years, he has purchased almost 3000 contiguous acres, extending from Vershire Center and a comer of Chelsea in the north to the open Strafford valley six miles to the south.
He didn't buy this land to develop a ski area or a retirement community or a passel of condos. He bought it to grow trees. While that by itself might seem odd to some people, the real kicker of it is that when he bought the land, there were precious few trees on it. What trees there were had been picked over pretty well: the best trees had been harvested, leaving sparse, low quality stands.
Much of the rest of the acreage was in the first stage of forest succession following the Depression-era abandonment of the fifty or so farms that once dotted Taylor Valley. So, four decades ago, it had very little marketable timber; today, with its well-managed stands of pine and northern hardwoods, it serves as a model of how well trees can grow in Vermont.
Back in 1950, Hemenway was looking for an accessible piece of land that was blessed with good soil and the potential for growing timber. Because of his interest in good growing sites — and only good growing sites — the foresters working for him at the time wore out a lot of shoe leather in the search.
"We looked for and managed to buy some good productive sites. The soils were good: lots of good loam, which was deep, well-drained, and capable of holding nutrients," Hemenway said.
"We knew it was going to be very, very long term, because it was almost open land, and at the time it had very little income potential."
In the late 40s and early 50s, Vermont land was being sold for prices that would make today's fast-lane developer fall faint. For land with exactly the kind of tree growing potential he'd been seeking, Hemenway paid $4 an acre. "People told me I was paying way too much for it," he said.
To be sure, some of the acreage had trees on it. Perhaps the best of them were in two small pine plantations totaling 30 acres that had been planted in 1$27. In the 40s, these stands had been managed by the dean of local foresters, Jim Wilkinson of Barre, who later became the commissioner of Vermont's Department of Forests, Parks And Recreation.
A growing interest
Hemenway's interest in forest management had been sparked in the late 40s by seeing some work that had been done by the New England Forestry Foundation. Along with his sawlogs, his interest in forestry grew. By 1956, he was the executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.
At about that time, he met Bert Croft, a forester from Barnard fresh out of forestry school. Croft started working for the foundation in 1956 and by 1968 he was managing Hemenway's Taylor Valley land.
Forestry has changed since Hemenway began managing his forest. For instance, paint guns were not yet in general use. Trees were marked for cutting with an axe-like tool which left a hard-to-duplicate mark on the tree, much like a brand. Sales of marked timber were just beginning in Vermont; in those days loggers usually bought the land or the timber on it.
Hemenway recalls that during the first thinning of the white pine, the logger's horse died during the job and he finished up by taking the wood out in a wheelbarrow.
Planted almost 70 years ago, the two pine plantations are providing a good income today. The 16-acre stand of red pine provides 50-foot-long 18-inch diameter telephone poles; the white pine is harvested when the butt log provides a minimum 20- inch diameter sawlog.
Because these stands have been so well managed for so long, they provide a very high rate of return. Red pines that will not make the grade as telephone poles have long since been removed.
The 14-acre white pine stand is a particularly good example of solid management. In six cuttings since 1947, the stand has produced nearly 28,000 board feet per acre. Removed at the same time and sold as pulpwood are the crooked and less thrifty trees. Each cutting gives the residual trees more room to grow and the thinnings are timed to keep the growth rate consistently high.
Consequently, 45 years after the first thinning, the stand holds a volume of almost 16,000 board feet per acre, according to Croft's estimates. Current growth per acre is estimated at approximately 790 board feet per year.
Pine needs a lot of sunlight to regenerate, so its seedlings don't thrive in the shade of a mature pine stand. Instead, beneath the pines, there is a hardwood understory growing up which currently provides browse for deer. Hardwood regeneration is aggressive on this fertile site. Said Croft, 'If we tried to grow another generation of pine here, we would be fighting nature all the way."
Within the next twenty years, all of the pine will have been harvested and the hardwoods will be a thick stand of pole-size trees, with enough stand density to encourage them to grow straight and tall with a minimum of lower branches. In another eighty years or so, these maple and ash saplings will be prime sawlogs, the stand having been thinned out along the way.
While the kind of bargain Hemenway found in 1950 won't be duplicated anywhere in New England today, he believes that there is great potential for growing high-quality sawlogs on good Vermont soil. The catch, of course, is that a landowner must be willing to make a commitment that is measured in decades rather than in years.
Hemenway thinks it's worth the wait because the economic return from a high quality tree is about 40 times as great as from a firewood tree of the same size.
Croft gave as an example a hypothetical sugar maple: an 80-year-old tree that has a diameter of 18 inches at breast height will have two and a half sawlogs in it, adding up to 274 board feet. This past year. Croft got a stumpage price of $500 per thousand board feet for high quality maple sawlogs. At this price, this hypothetical sugar maple is worth $137.
A tree the same size that has some defects, like a number of thick lower limbs and a split trunk, could only be sold as a pallet log. These logs generally bring about $25 per thousand, so this tree would be worth $6.85. As firewood, it would be worth even less; it would yield a little more than half a cord and would be worth about $3.50.
Trees that will become pallet logs and firewood are removed in the thinnings, and they do provide some additional income. At first, Hemenway's hardwood stands had a large number of culls. Croft managed timber stand improvements on hundreds and hundreds of acres. Recently, he has used the crop tree release method in some hardwood stands. Instead of a general thinning, he marks the crop trees and then removes all the trees that could interfere with their continued growth.
Without intensive timber stand improvement, very few of the potential sawlogs would have grown to full size. Now this forest is producing more revenue per acre each year and has more valuable standing timber than ever before.
The future of Taylor Valley
Hemenway is in the process of putting his Taylor Valley land into a partnership so that it can remain intact. "I want to keep it together, to keep the management going. After working on it for forty years, it would be a shame to see it split up," he said.
Hemenway said that the current use tax valuation system has enabled him to keep the land intact so far. A fact of life for landowners is that, while land prices go up, so do taxes. When land is taxed at fair market value—the price it could bring as a site for condos or a dream home — rather than at a rale based on its use as timberland, the taxes far exceed its income potential.
This is despite the fact that Hemenway —and a multitude of other landowners like him — have no intention of developing their land. Theoretically, enrollment in the current use program reduces the land's tax valuation to its value as timberland.
However, in recent years the program has not been fully funded and landowners are realizing less than two-thirds of the benefit.
As northern New England climbs out of the recession, land prices will continue the rise that has taken place over the last couple of decades. But the value of land that has been managed by stewards like John Hemenway increases at a much greater pace.
Still, much of the value of the Hemenway land is intangible. How does one measure the value to the Strafford and Vershire communities of a 3000-acre piece of land in their back yards that is available to all of them for recreation? Hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, horseback riders and cross-country skiers have used Taylor Valley for years. Hemenway has never posted the land and has never felt the need to.
On a recent visit to Taylor Valley, there were six vehicles parked in one of the log landings, their occupants out traversing the miles of trails created over the years by the various logging operations.
"We're very pleased to have people use the land and I think some of them have gained an appreciation for good forestry practices and what they can do to a piece of land," Hemenway said.
When Hemenway was named the Vermont Tree Farmer of the Year in 1992, he said: "I must say that beyond the science and practice of forestry, the greatest reward in this experience is an overriding sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in leaving the land and the forest for another generation in far better condition than when we started nearly a generation ago.