New plan for forest land promotes diversity in trees

A moose in the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Essex County. File photo by David Govatski/USFWS via Flickr
The forests of the Nulhegan Basin in northern Essex County, heavily logged for 150 years, will be managed with an eye toward growing healthy forests that will sustain wildlife, support recreation, and still produce some income from the sale of forestry products, according to the draft habitat management plan for the Nulhegan Basin published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week.
The Nulhegan Basin was acquired in 1999 as part of Vermont’s largest-ever conservation effort — coordinated by the state of Vermont, the federal government, and an assortment of private interests — to conserve a total of 132,000 acres of northern forest, lake and bog, in the state’s most remote and poorest county.
The basin is part of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge which was created by an act of Congress in 1991 to conserve and protect the entire Connecticut River basin, from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.
The 228-page Nulhegan Basin Division Habitat Management Plan, which was years in the making, provides both a vision and a blueprint for the management over the next 15 years of a portion of the refuge known as the 26,000-acre Nulhegan Basin Division.
Much of the planning for the future is about mitigating past practices in a forest landscape that for the last century and a half has been dominated by one industry — logging.
The impact of logging on the entire basin cannot be underestimated, from the lack of diversity of its trees, to the damage done to its rivers in long ago log-drives.
About two thirds of the forest covering the Nulhegan Basin Division, for example, are “single-cohort,” meaning there is only one layer of tree canopy, an indication that the trees are all one age. Before logging, the trees of the basin would have multiple-cohort, with a varied canopy.
“These numbers are outside of historical norms,” the plan says. “The preponderance of these structurally simplified stands is likely the result of past large-scale, even-aged management and harvests.”
“There were large clearcuts all over the Nulhegan Basin,” said Steve Agius, who manages the Nulhegan Basin for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As a result, almost half of the trees in the forests of the basin are younger than 30 years, and most of the trees are under 40, according to the plan.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Robbo Holleran, a forester and president of the Vermont Forestry Association. Younger forests can be easier to rehabilitate and manage for the future, Holleran said, and they can be good for wildlife.
Ideally, he said, a healthy forest would contain a mix of trees of different ages. It takes about 60 years to establish a healthy mixed forest.
But a young forest presents other difficulties, not the least of which is the value of its timber. A forty-year-old forest “is marginal” in terms of its potential profitability, Holleran said, especially given the competition, mostly in the form of cheap pulpwood imported from Canada.
Finding a market for non-timber wood products such as wood chips and wood pulp will be “essential” for the successful management of the Nulhegan Basin’s forests, Holleran said.
“The feasibility of this document … relies heavily on the timber industry,” Agius said, referring to the management plan. It is anticipated that annual timber harvests from the basin’s forests will in turn sustain, at least locally, an industry that is struggling in Vermont — forestry generally, and loggers in particular.
“In part, the Plan would be accomplished through projects that generate marketable wood products, and the Service will depend on the expertise and availability of local contractors, markets for timber products, and other factors to accomplish the outcomes identified in the Plan,” the plan says.
The idea is to manage the forestland for a mix of purposes including income, recreation, and for the conservation and protection of wildlife — going so far as to introduce “downed woody material,” and snags — essentially trees that fall and are left to rot, not common in heavily-logged forests but important habitat for wildlife.
“Wildlife conservation is our highest priority,” Agius said. The habitat management plan for the Nulhegan Basin aims “to sustain or restore well-distributed high-quality habitat for species,” he said.
The Nulhegan Basin is biologically important for many reasons, for the extent and diversity of its wetland areas, including spruce-fir-tamarack swamp, black spruce swamp, northern white cedar swamp, and peatlands. It contains valuable migratory bird habitat, and it is Vermont’s largest deer wintering area.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comment on the draft plan through March 23.
Read the story on VTDigger here: New plan for forest land promotes diversity in trees.