The middle landscape and movement ecology – black bears in Vermont

Here is a story that spans the nineteenth and twentieth century, of people stepping back from the brink, of heeding the observations of cause and effect of an astute interpreter of human actions on wild nature, breaking from a self-serving philosophy that exploitation of natural resources had no consequence, and taking back responsibility into the public domain for the nurture of natural landscapes. It’s a good news story for both people and black bears.

I came to wild land by way of Permaculture, guided by its spatial/zonal approach to land use that recognises a wilderness zone - Zone 5 - that is unexploited by human extractive activities, and which is bordered by a Zone 4 committed to low and infrequent intensity of use (1-3). Thus Permaculturists would be ideal settlers in the compatible use areas (what used to be called buffers) around strictly protected core areas like wilderness, and in ensuring a low threat passage between core areas through wildlife movement linkages (4). That’s quite a precise spatial-use differentiation compared to the wider land use that is typified by a concentration on farming, or plantations of non-native trees, because it argues for an in-between land separating the latter from wilderness. I was reminded of this when I came across a chapter in a book from 2001 on rewilding the north-east of America that spoke of a “middle landscape”. I think the phrase originated in the 1780s with Thomas Jefferson as a pastoral ideal in America in both outlook and scale of activity that was under threat from agricultural improvement and the forces of industrialisation that were crossing the Atlantic from Europe (5,6). In this book chapter, Nora Mitchell at the University of Vermont, and Rolf Diamant, Superintendent of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vermont, defined the middle landscape as the humanised landscape between civilisation and wilderness, the working landscape that provided a connection between remote areas of wilderness and the places where most people lived and worked (7). Their belief was that an opportunity existed in the middle landscape to sustain and cultivate knowledge of wildness close to home, and to explore the relationship with more remote wilderness. It was a place where people could learn to live on the land in a sustainable way. This is very much the Permaculturist view - that we learn from wilderness (3,8-10) and in saying that, I realise that I haven’t really documented in what way wilderness infuses the moral imperatives that underpin Permaculture, but I will come back to that in a later article.

Important role as corridor and buffer for the wild lands of the core

Mitchell and Diamant’s perspective was shaped and informed by the history of land stewardship in places such as Mount Tom, on the edge of Woodstock Village in Vermont (7). Forest had returned to the barren hillsides of Mount Tom in the late nineteenth century almost as dramatically as it had disappeared after having been cleared by the end of the eighteenth century for agriculture and lumber. Frederick Billings had come back to Vermont with his fortune made in California, and in 1869 he purchased George Perkins Marsh's former estate (11). Billings had read Marsh's pioneering volume on ecology called Man and Nature, and put into practice Marsh’s theories on conservation (12). Billings and his heirs bought many failing farms and reforested much of the surrounding hillsides, as well as demonstrated a way of farming that replaced the sheep-based economy, uncompetitive because the transcontinental railroad allowed easy access for western ranchers to eastern markets (11). Billings also created a network of carriage roads and trails with scenic vistas from the forest, thus combining recreation, a template for farming, and timber harvest, without seemingly ruining the land. The authors saw that the lessons of land management described by Marsh in the nineteenth century, were today “written on the rewilded forest landscape of Vermont and many places in the Northeast. Past land management efforts tell stories of sustainability — some through failure and others through continuity. These stories can be used as guides and as encouragement to seek sustainability alongside rewilding. Viewed in this light, our northeastern landscape can be our compass for new directions in environmental thought and development of a broader, more inclusive conservation ethic”

Mitchell and Diamant went on to note that recent literature was rich in celebration of the rewilding of Vermont and other areas of the Northeast. They described Terborgh and Soulé’s vision of large-scale networks and mega-reserves employing a strategy of linking core areas with corridors as “an exciting new approach to conservation biology that had a focus on keystone species that ranged over large geographic area” (13). They noted that The Wildlands Project, allied with Wild Earth, a “quarterly journal on conservation biology and wild lands activism”, was "drafting a blueprint for an interconnected continental-scale system of protected wildlands linked by habitat corridors" (7). It was here that the authors got to what I thought was the crux of their thesis around middle landscapes – “This vision of large-scale reserves creates a future for wild lands dependent upon and interconnected with the cultivated middle landscape. In this vision, the humanized landscape is a critical component in the strategy and is recognized for its important role as corridor and buffer for the wild lands of the core”

When I carried out a contextual analysis of the origins of rewilding (14) I also identified that the meaningful co-existence between humans and wild nature, so that the former is not to the exclusion of the latter, is essential for the establishment of wildlife movement linkages that connect core areas of wildland, as it is for the compatible use areas that may surround the cores areas (4). The ecological basis is a recognition that this connectivity, especially for widely ranging species, overcomes the drawback of isolated refuges where there is a trajectory of population failure over time unless there is a free flow of species, and thus also genes, to avoid inbreeding depression, and which meets with the life history strategies of species for movement and dispersal (4,15). With my eye on what this middle landscape around Woodstock may offer for wildlife connectivity, I find that the nearest federally-designated wilderness core areas are the Joseph Battell Wilderness (12,336 acres) that is 25 miles to the NW, and Peru Peak Wilderness (7,825 acres) 30 miles to the SW, these two amongst the eight wilderness areas in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont (16-18). The nearest to the E is the Sandwich Range Wilderness (35,303 acres) that is 48 miles away, and is one of seven wilderness areas in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire (19,20). Sandwich Range Wilderness was the first National Forest wilderness that I walked in America, back in 2005 (2). There is also the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness (46,283 acres) 60 miles to the W, which is one of 18 state-owned and designated wilderness areas in the Adirondack Forest Preserve in New York State (21-23). While the wilderness areas measure in the many thousands of acres, Woodstock is also surrounded by generally smaller Vermont State Forest areas, Coolidge State Forest East being only 6 miles to the W, with Okemo State Forest (7,637acres) Proctor Piper State Forest (1,513 acres) and Roxbury State Forest (5,509 acres) being between 16 and 36 miles away (24-26). All these forest areas in the three states are open to walking.

Habitat and movement ecology of black bear

I will come back to the origins of these national and state forests in the north-east when I explore further the influence of George Perkins Marsh, but one thing that many of these have is the almost certain presence of black bear (Ursus americanus) (27-29). Historically, black bears were common in forested areas throughout North America, but in the United States overexploitation (persecution and unregulated harvest) and habitat loss led to range contraction to 60% of its original (30). However, black bear abundance increased in America from the 1980s to 2000s, and range has expanded in eastern America since the 1980s. Vermont has a population of around 6,000 after having been reduced to a few hundred when hunting bounties were ended in 1941 (27,31,32). They are found throughout much of the state, yet the greatest concentrations of Vermont bears are found in core habitats along the spine of the Green Mountains and the north-eastern highlands of Vermont. Black bears require large forested areas as core habitat for successful reproduction, allowing them to avoid humans, and which have a variety of food resources. Thus core habitats tend to be remote from roads, human developments, and human activity, as well as having the highest density of beech trees. They are secretive animals that prefer to travel within the concealment of forest and shrub habitat, usually only using fields and large forest openings at night or in low light as a feature of their avoidance strategies. Smaller forest areas are likely stepping stones in connectivity, waypoints on migration, as is explained in a guide to bear habitat connectivity in the north east of America from the Staying Connected Initiative, a binational collaboration of over 50 partners that has been working together since 2009 to sustain landscape connectivity across the Northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion (33,34). Males are more solitary and tend to roam further in search of food and shelter, having a home range up to 30 square miles (27,31,32). During the breeding season older, more dominant males will search wider areas, up to 120 square miles, for receptive females. Females, on the other hand, tend to use smaller home ranges (about 10 square miles) having high quality food sources and security for raising cubs. Bears become mature at about three and a half years, and give birth every other year. The breeding season occurs during June and July, but implantation of the fertilised egg into the mother's uterus is delayed until autumn.

When the bears first emerge from their dens in late March or April, food supplies are scarce. Although bears may feed on evergreen needles, buds, roots, bulbs, carrion, and over-wintered acorns and beechnuts, they usually must turn to the succulent, emergent vegetative growth of wetlands and seeps, like jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), as well as Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) in moist woodland. Forested wetlands often provide the only food bears will have during their first month or two out of the den, and bears may perish if their fat stores are depleted in spring or they are unable to find adequate access to wetlands. As an omnivore, black bears may prey upon young deer and moose in early summer although they do not actively hunt for these. They occasionally eat the eggs or young of low nesting birds, as well as rodents, and the insects and larva that find cover in the course woody debris of the forest floor. Later in the year, hard mast such as acorns and beechnuts are an important part of their diet, but also wild berries and hazelnuts. The first black bear I saw was back in 2003 in Jasper National Park, Canada. It was springtime, and the bear was rootling around for grubs.

Before European settlers arrived, most (95%) of Vermont was covered with forest (35) providing ideal bear habitat (27). However, by the 1850s, almost 75% of Vermont's land area was cleared for farmland (35). Consequently, bears were at their lowest population level, but from then onwards, land use changed drastically: the sheep boom that had lasted many decades, reached a peak of about 1.7 million sheep in the mid-1800s, but expansion of ranching out west made Vermont wool less competitive with other products; farmers tried other ventures, but the erosion and flooding that resulted from the lack of trees and groundcover made farming difficult, to the point where many families abandoned their farms; pastures and fields slowly reverted to woodlands, and today over 80% of Vermont is once again forested. As a result, the quality of Vermont's black bear habitat has greatly improved. The reforestation around Mount Tom and westward for Woodstock Town Forest that now form the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park (36) would certainly have reinstated migratory cover for black bear (34) and black bears are occasionally seen there, as well as in the adjacent Okemo and Roxbury State Forests (24,26,37). Indeed, the Okemo State Forest lays on the route of the Green Mountain Black Bear Corridor, as does the much larger Coolidge State Forest West, forming sections of a critical north-south wildlife corridor for black bears and other free ranging species ((38) and see the corridor map in (39)). The lands purchased in this corridor along the spine of the Green Mountains by various Trusts and Foundations over a 12-year period connect the two units of the Green Mountain National forest with other private and public conserved lands to create a 20,000-acre expanse of forest habitat that is now protected from fragmentation. The 2,700 acres of the Ninevah Foundation were contributed to the corridor by conveying conservation easements on its lands to the Forest Legacy Program, a joint federal/state initiative to conserve environmentally important forests (39). Under Forest Legacy, property owners agree that their lands will remain undeveloped in perpetuity, protect important habitat and natural resources and grant the state a right of public access to the lands for non-motorised recreational activities (40).

In wider context, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department provide a guide to private landowners in how to improve habitat for bears (32) and especially how to increase wildlife food and beech mast production (41,42). In addition, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department worked with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to address the issue of habitat connectivity by developing wildlife suitability maps identifying areas that support animals that require large areas, such as free-ranging black bear and moose (31). These maps help identify areas that should be conserved and managed so that animals can safely cross roads that bisect their habitat, as well as provide towns and regional planning commissions with a focus for land use planning. An example of this mapping shows the Most Suitable areas for linking into the large black bear habitat area in the north-east of Vermont, seemingly as bands that track the Groton, CC Putnam, Mt Mansfield, Jay, Willoughby and Victory State Forests (see Fig. 4.5 in (31)). A very recent study carried out for the Vermont Agency of Transportation used camera traps to identify what species made use of culverts and bridges on busy road corridors, with the intention of getting evidence for designing better wildlife passages under roads and so reduce wildlife mortality (43). Bears used medium underpasses like arch culverts between 5’ and 8’ width and height, as well as large underpasses like bridge spans and the larger arch culverts (> 10' wide, > 8’ high) but bypassed the smaller, pipe, box and arch culverts (3-6’ wide and < 8’ height) by clambering up the bank and over the road. These smaller underpasses were used by fox, otter, fisher (Pekania pennanti) lynx and bobcat, whereas coyote and deer rarely used underpasses of any size.

In terms of a much wider regional network of wildlife, a Wildlands Network Design was proposed back in 2006 for the Greater Northern Appalachian region of NE America and SE Canada, based on identifying core areas that are permanently secured from conversion to development, or could be so protected; the areas of high biological significance alongside the cores where wildlife linkages would connect the cores; and a focal species analysis using the habitat needs of lynx, American marten (Martes americana) and wolf (unfortunately not black bear) to help address how large the network components should be and how they should be configured (44). Priority conservation areas within the Network Design were identified, based on their contribution to regional and local connectivity, and The Green Mountain spine in Vermont, which transitions into the Sutton Mountains of Québec, was seen to have the potential to provide a north-south linkage along the main stem of the Appalachians (see Area 10 on Fig 14 in (44)). Following on from this, the Staying Connected Initiative (see above) has worked on those and other priority areas for maintaining habitat connections across the Northern Appalachian-Acadian Region, linking the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains, the Green Mountains to the White Mountains, and on up through the mountains of Maine, with linkages across to the mountains of Quebec (see the maps in (34,45)).

This work of the Staying Connected Initiative feeds into a continental scale Eastern Wildway, a proposed extensive wildlife corridor linking eastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2015, the Wildlands Network (formerly Wildlands Project –see above) brought together conservationists from across eastern North America to participate in the Eastern Wildway Network (46). A number of urgent priorities for restoring habitat linkages in eastern North America had been identified in 2011, and which included linkages across from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains, and then up to the Sutton Mountains in Quebec and across from NE Vermont to the White Mountains and into Maine (47). Similarly, existing core reserves in the Eastern Wildway were identified from amongst the National Parks, National Forests and other public wild places, and which included areas in the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains, and the White Mountains (48). It helped that in 2016, the governors of New England states and five eastern Canadian premiers signed a resolution that recognised the importance of ecological connectivity for the adaptability and resilience of the region's ecosystems, and pledged to commit to conserving key forest corridors for wildlife (49). Then began the process of mapping: drawing habitat cores based on data for areas identified as the most climate resilient, and from a regional Conservation Adaptation Strategy, and backed by aerial imagery; and then drawing corridors connecting these core areas based on various regional studies of connectivity, also backed by aerial imagery. The result in 2017, published as a draft for consultation by Network partner South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, was a comprehensive conservation network design on a continental scale that if implemented would conserve nearly half of the land and water in eastern North America (see the map of cores and corridors in (50)). In October 2019, Wildlands Network released an interactive Eastern Wildway map that presents a compelling vision for an ecologically-connected N. America on the E side of the continent, stretching from the Everglades National Park on the S tip of Florida upto the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada (link to interactive GIS map in (51)). You can zoom in on the proposed network of cores and corridors in Vermont and see that Woodstock is at the S extent of a large, Potential Core Area that runs N-S and which has multiple Potential Habitat Corridors radiating from it.

It may not be often that a bear makes a long journey from one mountain range to another, but this long-range movement may happen over the course of a number of generations, allowing mixing of the gene pools of different populations at a NE regional level that includes Vermont, and eventually even at a continental scale of the Eastern Wildway.

An astute interpreter of human actions on wild nature

All these measures are an explicit recognition of the movement ecology of black bear and an acceptance and encouragement of their presence in Vermont. I would argue that the widespread distribution of black bear in the northeast owes its existence to George Perkins Marsh, because it was his warnings about the overuse of natural resources like the clearance of wild forest that led to state and federal action. Marsh, born in 1801, grew up playing on his family's property on the slopes of Mount Tom (52). He began to notice that the deforestation of the mountain had resulted in erosion and the loss of topsoil, increased siltation, the destruction of fish habitats, and the loss of fertility in agricultural fields. After college, he taught Greek and Latin before becoming a lawyer. Then, in 1839, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and went to Washington where he was a key figure in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. On trips home to Vermont, Marsh was profoundly disturbed by the changes that continued forest clearing had wrought on the landscape. In a speech in 1847 to a local Vermont agricultural society, he warned farmers against continuing to clear the land of trees – “Steep hillsides and rocky ledges are well suited to the permanent growth of wood, but when in the rage for improvement they are improvidently stripped of this protection, the action of sun and wind and rain soon deprives them of their vegetable mould. They remain thereafter barren, producing neither grain nor grass”. He argued instead for regulating when and how many trees were cut, and which could improve the health of the forest and nearby agricultural land.

Later, on becoming America's ambassador to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, Marsh saw the devastation caused by deforestation in Europe, and he took note of the land management plans being devised to remedy that damage. He began work on a book to articulate his vision of how man could control his imprint on the natural world. Published in 1864, it was a systematic exploration of the extent and significance of the environmental changes wrought by humans, drawing on the works of European scientists and geographers so that there was a wide geographical sweep to his examples in the book (12). Marsh challenged the belief that the human impact on nature was generally benign or negligible - "But man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords". He explained that the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean had brought about their own collapse by manipulation of nature, destroying natural fertility through deforesting hillsides and eroding soils. In what could be considered an early work in ecology, he described the influence forests had on local temperature variations, regional climate patterns, precipitation and soil moisture, the regulation of flow into rivers, and how they were protection against rock fall and snow avalanche in alpine countries like Switzerland. Marsh made the connection between mountain degradation through clearing woods and the torrents downstream in rivers in the Alps, the floods carrying masses of damaging debris. He had seen the power of rivers to erode and transport debris in 1857 in the Ottaquechee, a small river that flows through Woodstock. He noted that governments in some European states had begun replanting woodland – “It is hoped that the planting of the mountains will diminish the frequency and violence of river inundations, prevent the formation of torrents, mitigate the extremes of atmospheric temperature, humidity, and precipitation, restore dried-up springs, rivulets, and sources of irrigation”. I have written before about the significance of these “protection forests” in Europe and how the UK signally fails to see the wisdom of areas of forest that have protective functions for soil through regulating natural water cycles (53).

In a section on Removal of the Forest, Marsh called the destruction of the woods “man’s first physical conquest, his first violation of the harmonies of inanimate nature" and he attacked the American assumption of the superabundance and the inexhaustibility of the earth – “it is to be feared, sometimes irreparable, injury has been already done in the various processes by which man seeks to subjugate the virgin earth” (12). Reflecting on the Instability of American Life, the restless urge for change, he saw this mirrored in the fluctuations effected in the physical nature of the landscape in America, arguing that it needed some abatement – “We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions, and devise means for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows, and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven, to the springs and rivulets with which it watered the earth”. He would reiterate this in his call for Restoration of Disturbed Harmonies where he wrote that when “reclaiming and reoccupying lands laid waste by human improvidence” we must “become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric which the negligence or the wantonness of former lodgers has rendered untenantable. He must aid her in reclothing the mountain slopes with forests and vegetable mould, thereby restoring the fountains which she provided to water them; in checking the devastating fury of torrents, and bringing back the surface drainage to its primitive narrow channels”. It would of course, also maintain a supply of timber that could carefully be resourced.

Marsh’s influence on state and federal forestry

Marsh lamented – “It is a great misfortune to the American Union that the State Governments have so generally disposed of their original domain to private citizens” – because he saw benefit in some of the American states retaining ownership of large tracts of primitive woodland. He noted that although “robbed of some of its finest pine groves, and often ravaged by devastating fires”, forest still covered by far the largest proportion of the north-eastern counties of New York State. This was the Adirondack Forest – “Nature threw up those mountains and clothed them with lofty woods, that they might serve as a reservoir to supply with perennial waters the thousand rivers and rills that are fed by the rains and snows of the Adirondacks”. He feared that with each passing year settlers and lumber companies were whittling away more of the woodlands. Marsh was aware that a proposal had been made that New York State should declare the remaining forest the inalienable property of the commonwealth of the state, and he agreed – “It is desirable that some large and easily accessible region of American soil should remain, as far as possible, in its primitive condition, at once a museum for the instruction of the student, a garden for the recreation of the lover of nature, and an asylum where indigenous tree, and humble plant that loves the shade, and fish and fowl and four-footed beast, may dwell and perpetuate their kind”. It went wider than this apparent early espousal of a wilderness designation, as Marsh foresaw the degradation and loss of soils if felling laid bare the woods on the Adirondack Mountains – “The felling of the Adirondack woods would ultimately involve for Northern and Central New York consequences similar to those which have resulted from the laying bare of the southern and western declivities of the French Alps and the spurs, ridges, and detached peaks in front of them.….The effects of clearing are already perceptible in the comparatively unviolated region of which I am speaking. The rivers which rise in it, flow with diminished currents in dry seasons, and with augmented volumes of water after heavy rains. They bring down much larger quantities of sediment, and the increasing obstructions to the navigation of the Hudson, which are extending themselves down the channel in proportion as the fields are encroaching upon the forest, give good grounds for the fear of serious injury to the commerce of the important towns on the upper waters of that river, unless measures are taken to prevent the expansion of “improvements” which have already been carried beyond the demands of a wise economy”

The economy that would be damaged would be the mills and transportation networks that depended upon New York's principal rivers and which could dry up from deforestation in the Adirondacks, as much as inundations, floods and debris as a result of deforestation could wreak havoc on them as well. Marsh’s book became a basic influence for those who argued for the Adirondack Forest Preserve in the years to come (54,55). Thus New York State passed a law in 1885 that in Section 7 designated all state-owned lands within the Adirondack and Catskill regions as a Forest Preserve (56). Section 8 of that Act specified that they would not be sold or leased and would be “forever kept as wild forest lands”. Unfortunately, the newly appointed Forest Commission was ineffective in applying protection from lumbering and fires, as well promote the further growth of forests, as it was required to do under Section 9 of the Act. This led a dissatisfied public to call for greater protection, leading to an Act that designated it a state park that will be “forever served, maintained and cared for as ground open for the free use of the people for their health or pleasure, and as forest lands necessary to the preservation of the headwaters of the chief rivers of the state, and a future timber supply” (57). However, land sales and timber cutting were authorised under the Act, and it took a Constitutional Convention in 1894 to approve a new Article VII (now XIV) that would stop this – “Section 1. The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed” (58). The Forest Preserve lands were divided into categories based on their capacity to withstand various uses in the first Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in 1972 (59). The latest version from 2019 shows that the classifications of Wilderness and Wild Forest are similar in designation to the Wilderness Act 1964, and in equal measure cover most of the state lands (~96% (60)) the difference between the two being that a greater variety of recreational activities and higher intensity of recreational use are allowed in Wild Forest areas (see from pg. 22 & 34 in (61)).

Marsh’s connection between forests and watersheds in Man and Nature was also an influence on those dismayed at the clear felling of forests in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and the subsequent fires and flooding (62-64). By 1867, the State of New Hampshire had sold off all of its public lands in the White Mountains. Logging railroads were built along every river valley into the forest for extracting timber, penetrating previously inaccessible mountain regions. Logging towns sprang up, and large-scale logging operations clear-cut huge swaths along steep mountain slopes. Uncontrollable fires engulfed hillsides resulting directly or indirectly, from logging activities. In some areas, logging railroads sparked flammable material; in others, fuel loads built up from slash (branches, tops) covering the hillsides enabled lightning strikes to spread. New Hampshire’s White Mountains were popular vacation areas and summer tourists did not like the blackened slopes and streams choked with sawdust and silt. Rivers began to be clogged with silt, banks eroded, waters polluted. Severe flooding occurred in 1895 and 1896 after heavy rains in the White Mountains resulting from clear cutting forests around the headwaters of the Merrimack and Pemigewasset Rivers, and their tributaries. These floods forced the closing of mills and other factories that depended on waterways like the Merrimack for hydroelectric power. Thousands of people were out of work and many blamed the flooding on the impact of deforestation in the White Mountains. Upset by what they saw, concerned citizens established the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (founded 1901) and started petitioning the federal government to buy land and protect it as a national park. One year alone, 1903, accounted for two-thirds of the total area burned in the White Mountains, the smoke arising from it visible across much of the north east (65). Within a few years, the forests of the White Mountains were practically gone. In 1908, Congressman John Weeks introduced a bill proposing that the federal government purchase lands near the headwaters of navigable streams by using receipts from already established forest reserves (62-64). It was considered constitutionally questionable for federal government to purchase private lands for the protection of scenery or forests, and so the emphasis instead was on conservation and improvement of the navigability of a river. The bill was amended a year later, adding that the purchased lands would be permanently maintained as federal forest reserves as a way to protect the headwaters of navigable waterways. After delays, negotiations, and filibustering, the bill became law in March 1911, and one of the first purchases that year was land in the White Mountains (66,67). White Mountain became a National Forest on 16 May 1918 (68) and the Sandwich Range Wilderness that I mentioned above in relation to Woodstock was designated in 1984 (69).

Vermont secures a future for its forests

By the late 1800s, 80 percent of Vermont had been shorn of its trees, large forest stands remaining safe only where they were inaccessible high on the Green Mountains, and with few remaining below 2,000 feet (70-72). First it had been early European settlers who had cleared land for their farms, then sheep farmers cleared more land as their flocks and their wealth grew, and throughout that, logging for profit had gone on. The arrival of railroads in the state during the 1840s and ’50s, its spur lines reaching once-remote parts of the state, made logging profitable there as well. The timber industry was important to Vermont’s economy, but clearcuts were regarded as the quickest way to profit. Lumber companies showed no sign of thinking of the future, as replanting to ensure future forests was almost unheard of, as was the practice of selective cutting. In 1882, the state Legislature created a committee of prominent Vermonters to formulate a solution for the state’s forestry crisis. It took committee members two years to come up with suggestions. They saw little the state government could do, since it owned no forests. The three-member committee was also loath to recommend any restrictions on the use of private property. Instead, they saw education as the way to teach Vermonters better forest stewardship. Joseph Battell, a member of the Vermont legislature from Middlebury had pushed for creation of the committee, but he also was disappointed with the findings. While lobbying for a public role in fixing the forests – and railing against “timber butchers” – Battell used his considerable wealth to buy up important pieces of Vermont, including Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain and tens of thousands of more acres along the spine of the Green Mountains.

In 1892, the Vermont Senate directed the Board of Agriculture to inquire into the effect of stripping a county of its forests, what it would do to the soil, climate and health, and the necessity and advisability of protecting against such stripping. In his inaugural address in 1894, Gov. Urban Woodbury declared - “The owners of timber lands in our State are pursuing a ruinous policy in the method used in harvesting their timber.… Some measure should be adopted to lessen the wanton destruction of our forest…The value of our water powers and the attractiveness of our scenery and the preservation of game and fish also call for reform”. Woodbury predicted that clearcutting would soon impoverish Vermonters who depended on the forest for their livelihoods, as much as deforestation could cripple tourism, people visiting the state for its beauty, hunting and fishing. Now barren hillsides were marring that beauty and reducing the deer herd. In 1902, the Vermont Fish and Game Commission reported that deforestation was having another harmful consequence. In an echo of Marsh’s warnings nearly 50 years before, soil was eroding from denuded hillsides, leaving streams and rivers thick with silt, the latter killing many of the fish that attracted anglers to the state. In 1903, a devastating fire burned over 5,000 acres in Vermont, and 106 individual forest fires scorched nearly 16,000 acres in 1908.

Others shared Marsh’s concerns and acted on forestry issues. A forestry commissioner was established by the state in 1904, funds were provided for the propagation of forest seedlings by the state Agricultural Experiment Station; and there were suggested tax incentives for landowners who replanted those seedlings. However, in his farewell address in 1908, Gov. Fletcher Proctor said – “All this has been in the right direction, but it does not go far enough”. He wanted to create the position of state forester, who would be a trained forester charged with formulating and implementing a “distinct forest policy” for Vermont. Austin Hawes, a Yale-trained forester, was named Vermont’s first state forester in 1909. Hawes surveyed the state and found much needing improving. He wrote in the Vermonter magazine in 1910 – “It must be admitted with regret that as yet little improvement in the handling of private forests has been accomplished. There are a number of wealthy land owners who are cutting their mature timber under forestry methods and many farmers who unconsciously are adopting certain of the principles of forestry; but the lumbermen have not as yet made much progress along this line”. Hawes found it odd that lumbermen were spending a great deal of money replanting after heavy cutting when “they could have secured natural seeding by a more sane method of cutting at less expense” – that is, not felling all the seed bearing trees so that the forests could regenerate themselves. Note that American state and national forestry production mostly relies on native species, selective cutting to leave seed trees, and on autogenic forest regeneration (2).

The State of Vermont bought its first forest tract in 1909, the year Hawes was hired, a 450-acre parcel in Plainfield known locally as Old Goshen Gore, becoming the L.R. Jones State Forest, and heralding the creation of the Division of Forestry (70-72). Hawes, in his Annual Report as state Forester in 1910 gave reasons for creating state forests – “Not only would the income from such a tract be a handsome asset to the State but many regions that have run down during the past generation would be built up on the industries thus made permanent. The state can wait for a longer term of years than the private owner, and by state ownership of large tracts a supply of large dimension timber would be assured for future generations. Altogether for protection purposes and for the better use of otherwise waste lands, the State of Vermont should unquestionably own at least 100,000 acres. Compared to 5,846,000, the total area of the State, this is a small portion, but if properly selected in the Green Mountain range, it would be of great benefit to the whole state. Its value in preserving the beauty of the state's scenery is not to be overlooked, and this will undoubtedly be more of a commercial asset of the state in the future than it has in the past". Later, in 1914, he would reiterate that need for public ownership – “In a few sections of the state, however, destructive lumbering is progressing on a scale hitherto unknown, and unless prompt steps are taken, considerable areas of Vermont will be turned from productive forests to worthless barrens. The reactionary policy of these large concerns, which pay no heed to the future, force one of two alternatives upon the people. Either the state must assert its right to regulate the cutting of these mountain forests or it must embark more extensively upon the policy of state ownership”

Private donations in 1910 soon added to the state’s holdings: Marshall Hapgood, a lumber mill owner, gave the state the summit of Bromley Mountain and a portion of the adjoining mountain range that became the Hapgood Stare Forest; Charles Downer donated a 340-acre parcel in Sharon, where the state quickly sowed hundreds of thousands of seedlings, and became the Downer State Forest. In 1911, Joseph Battell donated 1,000 acres to the state, including the summit of Camel’s Hump, and which with further state purchase of 6,177 acres became Camels Hump State Forest. As a result of the interest in the state forests already established, the legislature of 1912 passed a bill authorizing an appropriation of $7,500 annually for the purchase, survey and reforesting of state forests. A 700 acre tract was purchased in Townshend in 1912 that became the Townsend State Forest; 918 acres were purchased in Mendon and became the George Aitken State Forest; 74 acres of drift sand were purchased in Lyndon, and experimental tree plantings were started to determine how to best control such drifting sands. In July 1913 a tract of 225 acres now known as the Arlington State Forest was purchased. In the fall of 1913, 350 acres of an abandoned farm some distance from the highway was purchased to become the West Rutland State Forest, the first purchase of farmland to be reclaimed as forest. Redfield Proctor had originally given 424 acres in Cavendish to the State in 1903, and a further 370 acres were gifted by other donors in 1914 that with 758 acres bought by the state became Piper Proctor State Forest. In the fall of 1914 Mr. C. C. Putnam and son, Ralph, gave the state 1,100 acres in the town of Worcester, land that had been severely burned, and the state purchased an additional 1,909 acres for it to become the Putnam State Forest.

Of the others near Woodstock that I have mentioned above, Coolidge became a State Forest in 1925 after 324 acres had been donated, but 11,551 acres purchased; Roxbury in 1930 from the purchase of 4,584 acres; and Okemo in 1935 from the purchase of 4,308 acres. For years after the passage of the Weeks Act, while Vermont was building its estate of public forests, there had been voices calling for the establishment of a National Park or National Forest in Vermont. The Vermont Legislature passed an act in 1925 enabling the federal government to purchase lands for a national forest in Vermont. It defined the boundary of the purchase area by naming the towns in which purchases may be made. Four years later, the federal government purchased land in the Green Mountains from funds through the Weeks Act. In 1932, a further 30,000 acres stretching from Hancock to Fayston were bought from Middlebury College, the land having been bequeathed to the college on the death of Joseph Battell in 1915. These land purchases became the basis of the Green Mountain National Forest that was established in 1932. The Peru Peak Wilderness and Joseph Battell Wilderness areas in the Green Mountain National Forest that I mentioned above as being the nearest federal wilderness to Woodstock were designated respectively in 1984 (73) and 2006 (74).

Cause and effect are a dim and distant past

You might consider that Vermont is too forested, because the 20% that is open land is a clear sign of how little of the state is farmed today, but surely wild nature deserves this redress. It is an exemplar for an extensive middle landscape, as propounded by Mitchell and Diamant, and which has a presence in the state that is much wider than just the vicinity of Mount Tom near Woodstock that they considered. The middle landscape in Vermont is the migratory space for widely ranging animals writ large, the “critical component” in connectivity between the “wild lands of the core”. It is why black bear flourish. Moreover, the distribution of landscape cover fits with the physiographic pattern of the state, a series of mountain ranges running N-S that originally contained and directed where European settlement and agriculture would easily occur (75). Sheep farming pushed it further into the wild, but it was the lumber companies and clearcut logging that broke the pattern; that reached into and destroyed – not nurtured – a forest resource that was wild habitat for bears, and in so doing led to landscape degradation and disruption of the water cycle. Cause and effect, and then a public conscience learns the lessons, aided by astute interpreters like George Perkins Marsh, and reacts to rectify the damage. It is an inspiring narrative of a less self-serving philosophy that is comfortable with living with wild nature. The problem with Britain is that cause and effect are a dim and distant past that inexorably led to the current ambit of human land exploitation. We don’t have any wildland, and so much else is not even middle landscape, overworked and lost as it is to the presence of most of its heritage of wild nature.

Mark Fisher 29 April, 8 May 2020

(1) Trees in the landscape, Self-willed land June 2005

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(5) Marx, L. (1964). The machine in the garden: technology and the pastoral ideal in America. Oxford University Press

(6) Bell, D. (1983) Knowledge and the Middle Landscape: Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, Journal of Architectural Education, 37(2): 18-26

(7) Mitchell, N. and Diamant, R. (2001) Stewardship and Sustainability; Lessons from the 'Middle Landscape' of Vermont". In Klyza, C. M. ed., Wilderness comes home: rewilding the northeast. (Hanover: Middlebury College Press) 213 – 233

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(11) Frederick Billings, Three Generations of Stewardship, Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller National Historical Park Vermont

(12) Marsh, G.P. (1864) Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. London: S. Low, Son and Marston

(13) Terborgh, J. and Soulé, M. (1999) Why We Need Megareserves: Large-scale Networks and How to Design Them. Wild Earth 9(1)(Spring) 66-72

(14) Fisher, M. (2019) NATURAL SCIENCE AND SPATIAL APPROACH OF REWILDING –evolution in meaning of rewilding in Wild Earth and The Wildlands Project. Self-willed land March 2020

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(17) Peru Peak Wilderness, Wilderness Connect

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(19) Sandwich Range Wilderness, Wilderness Connect

(20) White Mountain National Forest Wilderness Areas, US Forest Service

(21) Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State

(22) the Adirondack Park - a Map of State Forest Lands, Mountains and Water, Adiorndack Parks Agency 2003

(23) New York's Forest Preserve, Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State

(24) Okemo State Forest, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont State

(25) Proctor Piper State Forest, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont State

(26) Roxbury State Forest, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont State

(27) BLACK BEAR, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont State

(28) Watchable Wildlife: Black Bear, Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State

(29) Black Bear (Ursus americanus) New Hampshire Fish and Game Department

(30) Scheick, B. K., & McCown, W. (2014). Geographic distribution of American black bears in North America. Ursus, 25(1): 24-33.

(31) Chapter 4: Black Bear, Big Game Management Plan 2010 - 2020 Creating a Road Map for the Future, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department 2009

(32) 20. BLACK BEAR: Ursa americanus. Wildlife Habitat Management - A Landowner's Guide for lands in Vermont, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department 2014

(33) About, Staying Connected Initiative

(34) Why did that bear cross the road? A Guide to Habitat Connectivity, Staying Connected Initiative 2011

(35) Forests, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

(36) Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, National Park Service

(37) Mammals, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

(38) Green Mountain National Forest, The Conservation Fund

(39) THE BLACK BEAR CORRIDOR, Annual Report 2015, Ninevah Foundation

40) FOREST LEGACY PROGRAM, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont State

(41) 11. WILDLIFE FOOD PLOT MANAGEMENT. Wildlife Habitat Management - A Landowner's Guide for lands in Vermont, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department 2014

(42) 9. BEECH MAST PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT. Wildlife Habitat Management - A Landowner's Guide for lands in Vermont, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department 2014

(43) Marengelo, P. (2019) Reducing Wildlife Mortality on Roads in Vermont: Determining Relationships Between Structure Attributes and Wildlife Movement Frequency Through Bridges and Culverts to Improve Related Conservation Investments, The Nature Conservancy in Vermont for Vermont Agency of Transportation

(44) Reining, C., K. Beazley, P. Doran and C. Bettigole (2006) From the Adirondacks to Acadia: A Wildlands Network Design for the Greater Northern Appalachians. Wildlands Project Special Paper No. 7. Richmond, VT: Wildlands Project

(45) Our Places, Staying Connected Initiative

(46) Eastern Wildway, Wildlands Network

(47) The Essential 16, Wildlands Network

(48) Core Reserves in the Eastern Wildway, Wildlands Network


(50) Feedback needed for continental conservation vision in the East, South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative September 5th, 2017

(51) Eastern Wildway Map Presents Vision for an Ecologically-Connected North America, Wildlands Network October 22, 2019

(52) George Perkins Marsh, Three Generations of Stewardship, Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller National Historical Park Vermont

(53) Forests in Europe - learning the lessons for the UK, Self-willed land December 2011

(54) The forest Preserve - A chronology. The Conservationist (DEC- NYS) May/June 1985: 5-9

(55) Van Valkenburgh, N. (1985) The Creation of the Forest Reserve. The Conservationist (DEC- NYS) May/June 1985: 10-15

(56) An act to establish a forest Commission, and to define its powers and duties and for the preservation of forests. Laws 1885, Chap. 283. Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court, Volume 176, 1900

(57) An Act to establish the Adirondack park and to authorise the purchase and sale of lands within the counties including the forest preserve, Laws of 1892, Chap. 707. Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court, Volume 176, 1900

(58) ARTICLE XIV CONSERVATION, The Constitution of the State of New York

(59) Adirondack Park State land master plan / prepared by the Adirondack Park Agency in consultation with the Dept. of Environmental Conservation; submitted to Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, June 1, 1972, Adirondack Experience Collections Database

(60) State Land Acreage by Classification, Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State


(62) Weeks Act and the Creation of the White Mountain National Forest, White Mountain History

(63) Passing the Weeks Act, The Forest History Society

(64) Protecting The Forest: The Weeks Act Of 1911, Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University

(65) Goodale, C. L. (2003). Fires in the White Mountains: An historical perspective. Appalachia, 54(3): 60-75

(66) THE PASSAGE OF THE APPALACHIAN BILL, American Forestry, vol. 17 (March 1911):164-170.

(67) WEEKS LAW PURCHASE UNITS, 1911-1932. The Forest History Society


(69) New Hampshire Wilderness Act of 1984 - Public law 98-323 (6/19/1984) To establish wilderness areas in New Hampshire, and for other purposes

(70) Then Again: When the Green Mountains were not so green, Mark Bushnell, VTDigger Jul 15 2018

(71) HISTORY OF FORESTRY IN VERMONT, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources

(72) Merrill, P. H. (1959). History of forestry in Vermont, 50th Anniversary 1909-1959, Vermont Forest Service

(73) Vermont Wilderness Act of 1984 - Public law 98-322 (6/19/1984) To designate certain National Forest System lands in the state of Vermont for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System and to designate a National Recreation Area

(74) New England Wilderness Act of 2006 - Public law 109-382 (12/1/2006) To designate certain land in New England as wilderness for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation system and certain land as a National Recreation Area, and for other purposes.

(75) Vermont Landscapes, Central Vermont: Explore History in the Heart of the Green Mountains, National Park Service