I have been excited about all the snow we have gotten this month, and what it means for the ski season. I prefer to get my winter recreation fix via downhill skiing, but I do love to take my two dogs on walks in the woods as well. However, sometimes, especially during the winter, it can be hard to know where you can take a walk on public land. Luckily, there are our town forests, which are town-owned lands all over Vermont. Town forests have existed since early European settlement, but in 1915, Vermont legislators passed the municipal forest law, which authorized the purchase of land by towns for growing timber and wood. Just 15 years after the municipal forest law was passed, Vermont had 42 town forests adding up to almost 9,000 acres. By 1950 there were 68 town forests adding up to 16,000 acres and now, 102 years later, there are 368 town forests covering 67,000 acres.
Outdoor recreation is a growing reason town forests are important to municipalities and citizens. In 2011, Vermont’s forest-based recreation industry contributed $1.9 billion to the Vermont economy, more than forest-based manufacturing ($1.5 billion). The numbers do not lie; Vermont is an outdoor destination and with this knowledge we can manage our land in ways that are sustainable and productive. Town forests are a great resource because, while initially intended to bring economic growth through wood and lumber manufacturing, they are recreational hubs and they provide wildlife habitat, clean air and water quality protection, outdoor classrooms, and increased community engagement. The large desire to use town forests does put stress on the maintenance and use of the land; some town forests are loved so much that they have become over-utilized, while others are unknown to community members, have no public access points, and are not utilized much at all.
In 2015, Vermont celebrated 100 years of town forests, and through the yearlong celebration, it became clear that communities need support for planning and management of their town forests. With several key partners, the Urban & Community Forestry Program (UCF) applied for and received a USDA Forest Service grant to build community capacity to plan for town forest-based recreation, improve the health and management of town forests, and improve town forest stewardship plans. Each town forest is unique and this program is going to identify lessons and create resources that can be transferred to other communities.
The funded project, Forests for the People, is focused on community engagement and support; 10 communities will be selected to engage in a recreation and management planning process. To kick off the project, last month UCF hosted a summit that brought together town forest advocates ranging from land trust representatives to active members of communities from across the state. The full day planning effort allowed the project coordination team to gain important perspectives on how communities will be selected to participate in Forests for the People, the structure, and process for community planning for recreation, and ideas about how to make this project impactful beyond its completion. Moving forward, UCF is formulating an application for communities. If you wish to stay informed on this program and town forests visit our town forest webpages.