History of Vermont's Town Forests

The history of Vermont’s town forests is part of a rich tradition of community forestry in New England.  The tradition of towns holding land for the public good reaches all the way back to the early 1600s and continues today as new town forests continue to spring up across Vermont's landscape. Below is a timeline that details the establishment, recognition, and milestones of town forests in VT and New England.

Download a Complete Regional Town Forest Timeline

Town Forest Milestones

2012: Canaan Community Forest Established

The Town of Canaan took ownership of 424 acres of forestland to create the Canaan Community Forest, to be used for a variety of economic, educational, recreational and conservation purposes.  The land was donated by the Neil Tillotson Trust, and the town quickly placed a conservation easement on 368 acres to ensure that the majority of the property will be kept undeveloped for all time. The working forest will be used for sustainable timber management, numerous recreational opportunities, protecting the local water supply and natural resource education by local students. The remaining 56 acres of the property has no easement and is available for the town to use for future economic development.

2012-  Barre Town Forest Created

Funding provided through the USFS Community Forest Program pays for the founding of the Barre Town Forest, the first town forest in Vermont to receive money from this federal program.  The Barre Town Forest protects significant recreational opportunities in central Vermont for hiking, mountain biking, snow shoeing and cross country skiing.

2008-  US Forest Service Creates Community Forestry Program

United States Forest Service creates the Community Forest Program.  This new grant program was authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill (Section 8003 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-234)), which amends the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978.  The full title is the "Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program," but the working title was shortened to "Community Forest Program," and it authorized the Forest Service to provide financial assistance to local governments, tribal governments, and qualified nonprofit entities to establish community forests that provide continuing and accessible community benefits.

2004-  Vermont Town Forest Project

Assisted by a consortium of more than thirty public and private partners, the Northern Forest Alliance establishes the Vermont Town Forest Project to help communities maximize the community benefits derived from town forests, and to help support the creation of new town forests statewide.  To advance that cause, the alliance published The Vermont Town Forest Stewardship Guide: A Community Users’ Manual for Town Forests, and convened Town Forest Summits in West Fairlee (2006) and Hinesburg (2007).

1993-  Granby Town Forest Established

With money collected from pot-luck suppers, and funds made available from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund and the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, the tiny Northeast Kingdom town of Granby, Vermont, purchases forest land and timber rights on Cow Mountain from Champion International Paper Company.  The town took title to a two-hundred acre buffer zone around Cow Mountain Pond, where cutting is restricted by a conservation easement, but oversight of timber rights acquired on the remaining land was given to a local conservation commission with assistance from the state forestry officials.  Such collaborative projects shaped by a medley of non-profit organizations, town, state, and federal governments, and local citizenry signal the most recent trend in New England’s ancient tradition of community-owned woodlands, renewing the campaign begun by the Town Forest Movement a century before.

1977-  Vermont Passes Law Enabling Conservation Commissions

Vermont’s legislature adopts a law enabling towns to create conservation commissions.  Chapter 250, Public Laws of Vermont (1977, adjourned session).

1973-  Vermont’s Municipal Forest Act Amended

Vermont legislature amends the provision of the state’s town forest law relating to state funding, specifying that town appropriations for acquisition and maintenance of town forests, within or without the town, qualify the town for such matching state and federal funds as may be available, provided that the suitability of such lands is approved by the commissioner of forests and parks.  The amendment also provided a definition of municipal forests:

A municipal forest means a tract of land primarily devoted to producing wood products, maintaining wildlife habitat, protecting water supplies, providing forest recreation and conservation education.  A municipal forest shall not be construed to include landscaped grounds and plantings around residential, industrial, institutional, municipal buildings or municipal areas devoted to off-street recreation. Chapter 148, Public Laws of Vermont (1973).

1966-  Vermont Town Forests Receive Award

Vermont’s Forest Service awards certificates of Good Forestry Practices on Municipal Forests to the towns of Bethel and Vergennes.

1951-  Vermont’s Legislature Amends the Municipal Forest Act

The Vermont legislature amends the state law regarding municipal forests, requiring a warning for annual town meetings asking whether towns or villages will authorize the selectmen or trustees to acquire land for a municipal forest, to promote reforestation, water conservation and good forestry practices.  Chapter 74, Public Laws of Vermont (1951).

1950-  Vermont Reaches 68 Town Forests

Vermont’s Forest Service reports sixty-eight town forests on more than 16,000 acres and soon launches a program to establish a forest in every town.

1945-  Vermont Legislature Amends the Municipal Forest Act

Vermont’s legislature amends the state’s town forest law, authorizing the state forestry department to pay for one-half of the purchase price of lands acquired for town forests, up to $600 yearly, and permitting towns to devote to reforestation any portion of those funds not required for acquisition.

1939-  Forest Service Defines Community Forests

The U.S. Forest Service program establishes a definition of community forests:

A community forest consists of lands owned and operated for forestry or allied purposes by a village, city, town, school district, township, county or other political subdivision, or by other community or group enterprises such as schools, hospitals, churches, libraries, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls.  Locally, a community forest may be known as the town, city, county, school, or municipal watershed forest; village, town or memorial woods; or community forest.

1937-  Forest Service Announces New Program for Community Forests

In a radio address, Chief U.S. Forester Ferdinand A. Silcox announces a U.S. Forest Service program in community forests, opening a new phase in municipal forestry. Initially housed within the Division of State Cooperation, the program was conceived as a national clearinghouse, with the goal of accumulating and distributing information, and U.S. foresters began compiling inventories of existing forests. 

1934-  Proctor Town Forest Management Plan Developed

Vermont district forester Wilbur Bradder develops a forestry management plan and timber-stand map for the Proctor Town Forest, on worn-out pastures donated by Mortimer R. Proctor, governor of Vermont from 1945 to 1947.  In addition to providing recommendations for silviculture, Bradder encouraged the retention of food trees such as apples, thornapples, and cherry to support game birds and animals, and his plan illustrates forestry’s expanding influence in landscape conservation.

1931-  Rutland Municipal Forest Management Plan Developed

In Vermont, state forester Wilbur Bradder prepares a management plan for the Rutland Municipal Forest on watershed lands the city had begun acquiring as early as 1881, spreading across the drainage basin of Mendon Brook below the slopes of Mt. Killington.  As he had on other plans for town forests, Bradder recommended retention of flowering shrubs and fruit or nut-bearing trees to improve the land’s appearance and provide food for wildlife.

1930-  New England Town Forest Reports Published

Annual or biennial reports from state foresters in New England typically note the number of town forests, and emphasis has already begun to shift from land acquisition and planting to management and silviculture.  That year, Massachusetts reported ninety forests on more than 25,500 acres; New Hampshire: seventy-nine on more than 16,000 acres, with plantations exceeding two million trees; Vermont: forty-two on almost 9,000 acres; Maine: eight forests, including the Theodore Roosevelt City Forest in Old Town, converted from the poor farm; and Connecticut: thirty examples, including the Barrack Matiff  (Great Mountain) Town Forest in Salisbury, located on a summit over which the Appalachian Trail passes. 

1927-  Maine’s Town Forest Legislation Passed

Maine’s legislature enables towns to acquire land for the cultivation of trees and protection of water supplies, and requires the state forest commissioner to furnish seedlings at cost.  Management of forests was left to towns, which were encouraged to appoint trained foresters, and for a brief period Maine’s forest service printed a newsletter, Town Forest News.  Chapter 33, Public Laws of Maine (1927).

1926-  Calais Town Forest Harvest

E. A. Lamphere, the town forester of Calais, Vermont, reports sale of timber to the National Clothes Pin Company in Montpelier.  Calais converted the woodlot from its poor farm to a town forest and began reforestation in 1925.

1925-  Green Mountain State Forest News Published

The Vermont Forest Service begins publishing the Green Mountain State Forest News, a journal that chronicles the growth of state and municipal forests in Vermont.

1924-  Vermont’s Town Village and City Forests Booklet Published

Robert Ross, Vermont’s Commissioner of Forestry, authors a short booklet, Town Village and City Forests in Vermont.

1923-  Essex Junction Reforests Watershed Land

The incorporated village of Essex Junction, Vermont, implements a reforestation plan on approximately 750 acres of watershed land protecting two small springs near the small village of Essex Center.  By 1930, workers had planted more than 400,000 seedlings, and the woodland became one of the state’s most important municipal forests.

1917-  Vermont Legislature Amends Municipal Forest Act

Vermont’s legislature amends its 1915 law and authorizes towns to purchase lands for growing wood and timber and designates them as municipal forests.  After inspection by the state forester, tracts not less than forty acres received official designation and were managed under the direction of the state forester.  Chapter 254, Laws of Vermont (1917).

1915-  Vermont Legislature Passes Municipal Forest Act

Vermont’s legislature passes a Municipal Forest Act which enables towns to purchase lands for growing wood and timber and designates them as school endowment forests.  Parcels could not be less than forty acres and were examined by the state forester to determine whether the land was suitable.  The state forester managed the forests and was authorized to sell 150,000 tree seedlings from the state nursery for each forest annually.  The task of protecting the forest was given to the town fire warden, who was compensated for his services by the town at the same rate paid for fighting forest fires.  Chapter 24, Laws of Vermont (1915).

1912- Reforestation Efforts Around Berlin Pond Make Way For the First Planted City Forest in Vermont

Montpelier may have been one of the first cities to start planting its watershed lands around Berlin Pond.  Rutland, Essex Junction, St. Johnsbury, and Bellows Falls all had begun acquiring lands to protect watersheds by then, but planting on most did not occur until later.

1901-  Montpelier’s Hubbard Park Created

In Montpelier, Vermont, city benefactor John E. Hubbard donates land to be used as a park, and landscape architect Dana Dow is later hired to develop a plan for roads, trails, and reforestation.  Plantations of red, white, and scotch pine and Norway spruce were initiated in 1906, and construction of a rubble stone observation tower, a popular feature in many of New England’s forest parks, was begun in 1916.

1900-  Westmore Town Forest Established

Charles Gill, pastor of the Congregational Church in Westmore, Vermont, persuades his friend, Chief U.S. Forester Gifford Pinchot, to donate funds toward acquisition of almost four hundred acres of woodland, to be managed by the church according to U.S. Forestry Division regulations.  When combined with the town’s Minister’s Settlement Lot, Gill and Pinchot established a church forest of nearly seven-hundred acres.

1890-  A Movement to Establish Community Forests Proposed

Bernhard Fernow, head of the Forestry Division in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, proposes a movement to establish community forests in America, writing in an editorial column for Garden and Forest: “In Germany I know of communities where not only all taxes are paid by the revenue from the communal forests, but every citizen receives a dividend in addition.  Fernow pointed to Zurich’s ancient city forest, the Sihlwald, as a model for American communities.

1882-  Massachusetts Town Forest Enabling Legislation

Massachusetts legislation enables towns to acquire land and place it in the public domain to preserve, reproduce, or promote the culture of forest trees for wood and timber or to protect water supplies.  Title to those lands vested in the state as trustee for towns.  Secondarily, the law also recognized the recreational value of such reserves, and the law later became known as the “Public Park Law.”  Chapter 255, Laws of Massachusetts (1892), Sections 1-8.

1869-  Reforestation of Mt. Tom, Begins Setting the Stage for Creation of Woodstocks Town Forest

Frederick Billings acquires the former home of George Perkins Marsh in Woodstock, Vermont, and begins planting an experimental forest of white pine, Norway spruce, white ash, European larch, and several other species.  He gradually reforested a large area of Mt. Tom, and Governor Franklin S. Billings later donated a portion of that land to Woodstock as a town forest.

1850-  Poor Farms Established

By the middle of the nineteenth century, poor farms had become a widely practiced method of local welfare throughout New England, and many of these farms relied on woodlots to generate revenue from fuel wood and timber.  A large number eventually became town forests.

1761-  Danville, New Hampshire Establishes One of the New England's First Town Forests

Formerly the parish of Hawke in the town of Kingston, Danville sets aside two parcels of land (fifty-five acres and twenty-acres) as parsonage lots and that year began construction of a meetinghouse with timber cut from those lots.  In 1790, Danville’s parsonage committee began managing the woodland and continued to do so for the next two hundred years, preparing careful timber sale agreements and occasionally renting the lots for grazing.  New Hampshire’s state foresters also designated Danville’s parsonage lots as models of forestry management, and the town eventually acquired adjoining land that today comprises a three-hundred acre town forest.  

1630-  The Concept of Common Lands

New England town proprietors establish nucleated villages and hold extensive tracts of surrounding uplands, meadows, swamps and marshes in common, sharing land and its resources for cultivation, grazing, and the felling of timber and wood for building materials, fencing, fuel, and other uses.  In 1636, for example, the proprietors of Salem, Massachusetts set aside a tract of land “along the shore on Darby’s fort side . . . to run along toward Marble Head 1120 pole” to supply wood and timber for town commoners. Such common woodlands mark the beginning of New England’s unbroken tradition of communal forests.  By 1700, however, most of these extensive common lands had been transferred to private ownership.