How Okemo State Forest is using one-time Covid-19 relief money to improve public access and forest resilience
By Christine McGowan, Vermont Forest Industry Network
There is just one road up the back side of Mt. Holly in Okemo State Forest. Originally built in the 1980s for forest management, the road now also supports snow machines and skiers in the winter, hikers and mountain bikers in the warmer months, and the occasional horseback rider. For decades, recreation in the area was fairly light — mostly locals who knew the road was there. And then came Covid-19.
Tim Morton, state lands stewardship forester for Windsor and Windham counties, estimates the area saw a fivefold increase in recreational use during the pandemic, adding strain to an aging road that was already in various stages of disrepair. In addition to erosion from wear and tear, the original culverts were significantly undersized for the increased volume and flow of precipitation in recent years, causing wash-outs from increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
So when the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks & Recreation received $1.5 million in Covid-19 relief funding to address increased use, Morton saw an opportunity to fix his road. And to expand recreational opportunities. And protect bear habitat. And improve truck access for a planned timber harvest. And address forest resilience in the face of climate change.
And it all starts with upgrading a culvert.
Upgrading forest infrastructure
“Without road access, you can’t accomplish anything,” said Morton, standing by a culvert in Okemo State Forest. “So we have to do the work when the money is there. It’s a long game.”
Morton’s long range management plan for Okemo State Forest — an 8,000 acre parcel that includes Okemo Mountain Resort, extensive snowmobile trails, and the 798-acre Terrible Mountain Natural Area — carefully balances myriad objectives in addition to recreation.
The road runs through early successional habitat for moose, deer, bear, pollinators and other insects. “It’s very vibrant,” he said, “and an important area where wildlife are raising and rearing young.” Protecting black bear habitat is a priority, as the area’s vast beech population has been severely impacted by beech bark disease in the past two decades. Morton is introducing additional summer fruits as an alternative food source and looking at red oak to replace some of the lost beech.
He is also opening access to a section of the forest that has been inaccessible because the road was built for shorter log trucks that are no longer available. The planned harvest in this area will create canopy clearings to improve tree species diversity, and help defray the cost of additional road and trail maintenance through the state’s land and facilities trust fund.
But looming over all of the forest’s many assets — recreation, wildlife habitat and timber harvesting — is a much larger concern, and one that now informs Morton’s plans at Okemo: the impacts of climate change. With changes in weather patterns, temperature, and precipitation, Vermont’s forest industry is moving from monitoring and predicting the threat of climate change to mitigating its impact through active management.
Flooding, erosion threaten Vermont forests
While wildfires ravage other parts of the country, parts of Vermont are dealing with a different problem: too much water. According to the NOAA National Center for Environmental Information, average precipitation in Vermont has risen about .7 inches per decade since 1895.
“Our forest infrastructure has to account for these increases in precipitation,” said Alexandra Kosiba, Vermont’s climate forester. “We are not going to make a big dent in slowing global climate change through forest management here in Vermont, but we can impact the effect of climate change on our forests and communities.”
The flooding and erosion that result from increased rainfall and extreme weather events can have a detrimental effect on the ecology of the forest, displacing carbon-rich soil and causing damage to infrastructure, such as log roads, that allow access for management and recreation.
So back to that culvert.
“The original culverts were undersized back in the Eighties,” said Morton, “and they are nowhere near adequate to accommodate the increased volumes of water that come in short bursts during the summer months that we see today.”
Tony D’Amato, a professor and director of UVM’s forestry program, agreed. “With increased rain and unexpected extreme events predicted for Vermont, if you want access to areas in forests, you have to invest in roads, bridge crossings, and culverts.”
Restoration for adaptation
Compounding the changes in weather patterns is Vermont’s history of land use, which included clear cutting 80% of the state’s forested land in the late 1800s. Although the forest has returned to the Green Mountain State, many areas have not rebounded to their former levels of diversity. They contain trees that are all roughly the same age and size, creating vulnerability to pests, invasives, and extreme weather events.
Okemo State Forest is one of a few sites in Vermont where scientists and researchers who are studying forest resilience can test their ideas. “We are localizing these 30,000-foot ideas at Okemo,” said D’Amato. “Diversity of species, complex forests, diversity of forest conditions — these are all ideas with theoretical and empirical backing, but those ideas need to be localized to the specific social, ecological and economic context of a forest.”
“Forests can’t just pick up and move,” said Kosiba. “They don’t react quickly to change, but the conditions our forests live in are changing rapidly. Especially in the context of our past land practices, Vermont forests are vulnerable to climate change, but we can help set them up to succeed. In Okemo, part of that work is increasing diversity within the understory by creating canopy gaps and removing some of the existing trees to allow other species to establish.”
What D’Amato calls “restoration for adaptation” aims to restore ecosystem complexity over time in order to improve the forest’s resilience to the effects of climate change. In Okemo, that means looking at species that are present in the forest makeup but in low supply, such as northern red oak, and creating conditions for young trees to thrive. He is also looking at species that are not currently present in the forest, but that do well just south — maybe 10 or 20 miles — such as black birch, bitternut hickory and black cherry, and introducing them to the forest composition.
“We’re not trying to reengineer the forest,” said D’Amato, “we’re just increasing the number of cards in the deck that are future-climate adapted.”
From the desk to the forest
“The key to all of this is the forest industry,” said D’Amato. “Without loggers to do the work, the plans will never leave the desk. We can get excited about ideas as scientists, but the real infrastructure and capacity to get that done is our logging workforce and mills in the region. As we work to improve forest resilience, it’s also going to be important to not only sustain but enhance the regional forest industry.”
In Okemo, Morton has contracted Jarvis & Sons Excavating out of Ascutney and PFJ Logging and Trucking in Rockingham. The first order of business is improving the road and upgrading the culverts. Morton expects the timber harvest to take place sometime next year.
“We want our forests to be forests well into the future,” said Kosiba. “With thoughtful management we can help steward our forests through this crisis.”
About the Vermont Forest Industry Network
Vermont’s forest products industry generates an annual economic output of $1.4 billion and supports 10,500 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating. Forest-based recreation adds an additional $1.9 billion and 10,000 jobs to Vermont’s economy. The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates the space for industry professionals from across the entire supply chain and trade association partners throughout the state to build stronger relationships and collaboration throughout the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products, from high quality furniture to construction material to thermal biomass products such as chips and pellets. Learn more or join at vsjf.org.