Three Vermont Woodland Owners Reflect on their Land Ethics

Dave Potter, woodland owner, Tree Farmer, 990 aggregated acres Clarendon, Tinmouth, Wallingford

“Land ethic is such a complex topic, and getting more so.  It is tied to so many other things in this modern, global world.  We need to think collectively and globally with regard to climate change, pandemics (disease), land use and food production, species extinction, forest destruction and fragmentation, water quality and quantity including both fresh and salt water, plus many others.

I live on land that has been (in part) within my family 200 years, and I am passing it onto my son thru a family trust. Working as a child on the family farm instilled a land ethic that no seminar could ever accomplish.  It wasn't all work, but hunting and fishing with family members was also an important part of it.  They taught me about conservation, saving, respect for forest and wildlife, dealing with obstacles, making things last, and all the responsibilities of land stewardship.  They ran a prosperous farm and I learned from it.

Here's what I worry about.  We have seen it up and down VT, abandoned farm land.  We are going to lose the patchwork quilt of farm and forest land that is unique to VT.  If farmers can't make a living, this will only get worse. Forest fragmentation is chopping up forest land and making it more difficult for wildlife. Timber values for forest landowners have stayed quite constant over the last several years, not keeping up with inflation.  For timber alone, land is not a great investment. Carbon sequestration by forest and ag land has some potential. It’s part of the climate solution that can hopefully produce a financial return.

Allen Yale, woodland owner, Tree Farmer, 93 acres in Derby
"In 1972, my wife and I purchased our current property with 93 acres that included a 20-acre young pine plantation.  We joined the American Tree Farm System in 1976. At that time, the program was sponsored by the American Pulp and Paper Institute so it didn't do much to promote a land ethic.  In 1986 I was a member of the second class of Vermont Coverts.  Thom McEvoy was very cleverly covert in hooking woodland owners with wildlife instead of timber production.  My focus for my woods shifted slightly to a more holistic view as I learned ways to manipulate woodland to be more welcoming to wildlife. And, it got me into Current Use, understanding that cutting some trees might benefit both timber and wildlife. The ten-year management plan and the yearly conformance report made me actually plan and then do something in the woods.

Another step was the American Forest Foundation sponsorship of the American Tree Farm System, with its use of standards and inspections to reach certification, raised the bar.  Some of its standards are more demanding than UVA's.

I grew up in rural Connecticut where we had plenty of woods to play in.  We need to find ways for kids to get greater exposure to nature.  There is a book titled, “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv.  This was made into a film.   Showing this to land owners and teachers might help.  Project Learning Tree is another way to get teachers and children in the woods. Get them while they’re young. Find a way to get kids and woodland owners together.  Site visits and walking tours with enthusiastic exemplars could do much.

Alan Robertson, woodland owner, Tree Farmer, 60 acres in Sheffield

"How did I come by a forest ethic? I had moral ethics instilled by my parents but growing up in a semi-suburban region, I never thought about a deeper appreciation of the land. That all changed after college when I ended up in Germany in the service and stayed on as a civilian employee of the US Army. Forests in Germany have been managed since 1200 AD, originally to avoid wood “famine” for firewood and preserve a home to animals for hunting. As learning evolved, even-aged management emerged simply to grow as much wood as possible. By 1850, Germans realized this failure and new philosophies began to circulate. Other needs transcended the need for wood. The population began to grow and forests became the “curtain” to separate villages. Foresters became revered for maintaining the resource, beauty, and silence needed by a densely populated land.  The more I hiked and walked in Germany, seeing many forest memorials and cultural observances, the more I understood their ethic. It became mine too.

Webster’s defines a steward as an Anglo-Saxon word; “In Scotland, an officer appointed by the king over special lands belonging to the crown.” A steward doesn’t own the land, but is responsible for its condition. A good steward leaves the land in a better condition than he found it.  So, my forestland ethic is to try to be a good steward of the forest in line with the respect and love for it I inherited from my German experiences.

In the US, forestland has never been in such short supply, or ingrained in the culture over the centuries, or so important to the need for physical separation that is found in Europe.  Hence the development of a forest ethic culture has been a much longer work in progress with Aldo Leopold being our light and vision on the concept. His writings have helped me realize and express my ethic and responsibilities as a steward of my forest.