Vernon Town Forest

The famous black gum trees in the Vernon Town Forest.

In the southeastern corner of Vermont is a 465-acre forest owned by the town of Vernon. It’s named the J. Maynard Miller Municipal Forest, after the local dairy farmer who convinced his town to buy it back in 1973 from prominent New York City architect Jacques Delamarre. A key reason the town decided to purchase the land was to ensure the preservation of one especially unique habitat within the forest: a swamp of black gum trees (Nyssa sylvatica). While the town forest remains best known as one of the few sites in northern New England where black gum grows, the rest of the property is a noteworthy example of various forest management practices.

The woods are mostly deciduous trees – red oak, red maple, birch, and beech – along with pockets of hemlock and white pine. Steve Hardy, a middle-aged man with an easy smile, has managed this forest for the last two decades. His firm, Green Mountain Forestry, manages municipal and private forestlands throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Hardy wears many hats as town forester. He sites, marks, and maintains recreational trails for the public’s enjoyment. And he develops plans for and oversees timber harvests.

Timber harvests are conducted at the J. Maynard Miller Municipal Forest to ensure the health of the trees left standing, to attract and sustain a wide variety of wildlife, and to generate income for the town. Hardy is currently concerned with the arrival of the hemlock wooly adelgid, which has already devastated hemlock populations in southern New England. Many of this forest’s hemlocks are showing signs of distress; some have already been killed. Hardy believes the best way to combat this infestation is by reducing the hemlock stocking level in the forest and trying to regenerate other species like white pine, black birch, oak, and maple. This past spring, Hardy and fellow forester Robbo Holleran hosted a workshop in the Vernon Town Forest. Roughly 60 foresters, loggers, mill reps, wildlife biologists, and private landowners took part. While the group was diverse, the perspectives were often complementary: a well-managed forest benefits them all.

Hardy described one area where he is in the planning stages for a thinning harvest. Like too many seedlings in a pot, trees that grow too close together compete with each other for water and sunshine. Many trees in these environments will die, and even those that survive will fail to reach their full potential in terms of height, diameter, and overall vigor. Dense groupings of thin, spindly trees limit the saleable board feet of timber on the property and limit the potential understory that will form the future forest.

The day’s workshop highlighted three techniques for regenerating new trees following a harvest: large patch cuts, shelterwoods, and small patch cuts. Using these techniques, Hardy has attempted to encourage certain species of trees and shrubs to take root and thrive.

Hardy first led the group to a large patch-cut where young pine, black birch, and other trees are growing. These trees are taller and larger in diameter than trees of the same age growing in more crowded areas of the forest. They benefited from the space created around them and have taken advantage of the increase in water and sunshine.

Coincidentally, these large patch cuts foster bushy understory growth that attracts nesting songbirds. Deer are often unable to consume all the young vegetation in a large patch cut; because of this, Hardy has found that large patch cuts increase the survival rate of saplings in the area.

Up a hillock the group went and down the other side, bushwhacking all the way. The land leveled out and the forest floor changed from dry, crackly leaves to dark, moist earth. Very tall, very strong-looking trees grew here, their exposed roots covered with soft green moss. We had reached the black gum, also known as tupelo. People stopped and touched the thick bark. They looked up at the huge branches that stretch out over a still-water swamp where they have been growing for at least 400 years. Because this swamp and its black gums are unique to the region, it’s been left as a natural area – just as the former town fathers had hoped. No forest management is planned here.

On a rise just past the swamp, the group circled around an example of a shelterwood. Foresters establish shelterwoods by cutting most but not all the trees on a site, so that there is both sun and shade on the remaining vegetation. Some of the remaining trees serve as a seed source for regeneration. On this site, seeds from black birch trees have successfully taken root and developed into young trees. Because of the amount of shade on the site, pines and hemlocks also found purchase here. There, Audubon wildlife biologist Steve Hagenbuch called the group’s attention to the song of the black-throated green warbler in the tree tops above – “Zee, zee, zee, zoo, zee” – and to the vireos, as well – “Here I am…Up here… In the trees.”

”There’s the value in a mixed stand of trees,” commented wildlife biologist Mariko Yamasaki. “Sometimes you’ll find these birds in a little patch of softwood within a hardwood stand or in a patch of hardwood within a softwood stand.”

One last stop: A small patch cut comes into view. Its trees don’t look robust like those in the large patch cut. Hardy points out that he chose this site because of the angle of the sun, thinking it might be sufficient to get light in. “Sometimes it’s the soil. You can’t do much about the soil,” commented a logger.

There was also talk about the role that forests play beyond the trees and wildlife that live there. The small town of Vernon has no centralized water distribution system. Residents and businesses rely on well water from the natural underground aquifer, so there is an appreciation for the role the forest plays as a natural filtration system to keep this aquifer clean. With responsible management practices, the J. Maynard Miller Forest will remain an integral part of Vernon for generations to come.

This series is sponsored by the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.


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