Does Vermont Have Any Patches Of Old Growth Forest?

Jun 7, 2019

This month on Brave Little State, a question from listener Andrew Wild about Vermont’s most elderly woods.

Note: Our show is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening, if you can.

Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism project, and every month we take on a question about Vermont that’s been submitted and voted on by you, our audience. Andrew Wild, of Burlington, is this month’s winner.

"Are there any patches of old growth forest in Vermont? And if so, how are they doing? How is their health, and how is the ecosystem in those places?" 

Andrew is a science-teacher educator and an avid hiker — and yes, he has the perfect last name for this question.

“I’m also wondering if there are social, political and environmental factors that led to those patches being preserved,” he says, “and just what the future might hold for those patches.”

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The search begins

Our search for old growth begins in Killington, Vermont, near the intersection of Route 4 and Route 100. This is the home of Gifford Woods State Park.

It’s a warm, spring afternoon when Brave Little State arrives, and the park hasn’t opened for the season. So we park near the gate and walk into a little patch of woods across the road, sandwiched between Route 100 and Kent Pond. Our guide? Ecologist Bob Zaino, of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

These woods look pretty unremarkable, like what you’d see off any trail (or road) in the Green Mountains. With one exception: Every couple hundred feet, there is a *really* big tree.

“We’ve just walked a short distance into the woods — I mean, we haven’t even left sight of the road. But here we are standing next to one of these giant sugar maple trees,” Zaino says.

Zaino has a special tape measure that shows not length, but diameter. He carefully wraps it around the giant maple: “Look at that, exactly 40 inches.”

At 40 inches in diameter, this sugar maple in Gifford Woods State Park is a relative behemoth.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

For context, Zaino says, most trees in this region more like 6 to 15 inches in diameter. So this tree is no joke — and Zaino estimates that it could be more than 250 years old.

Gifford Woods State Park is one of the best-known patches of old growth in the state, even though it’s only about 20 acres spanning a busy state route. (Visitors who arrive at the main entrance, across the road, will find a trail through more old growth, with informational signs.)

On our tromp through these unmarked woods, we ask Bob Zaino if there’s a master list of other areas of old growth in the state. Surprisingly, there isn’t.

“I know there’s some books that have tried to make those lists, but I don’t think there’s any comprehensive list,” Zaino says. “I think most of the places that are old forest we may not even know about, because no one’s gone in there to count the tree rings and look for them.”

We called up Michael Snyder, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (key word: forests!), to see if his department keeps a list:

“Well, we, yes, and no, and more and more,” Snyder said. “Sure, we know about the old forest at Gifford Woods State Park, and Cambridge Pines, for example, and a few others that we’re aware of. Less so on private land.”

Snyder says “more and more” because in some ways we’re still discovering what old growth is still here. (More on that later.)

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But then, what about federal land? What old growth do we know about in the Green Mountain National Forest? It is 400,000 acres, after all.

Jeff Tilley, a forester and silviculturist with the Green Mountain National Forest, says his colleagues have mapped and categorized about 737 acres of old growth, though most of it is in remote pockets scattered throughout the forest.

There is a more established area, referred to as The Cape, in Goshen and Chittenden — but it’s not set up for visitors.

“It’s public land. It’s open to the public,” Tilley says. “But it is a sensitive area ... which is part of the reason that there’s not a lot of interpretive facilities or access there.

So the short answer to Andrew’s question is yes, there are patches of old growth in Vermont. But there’s no exhaustive, statewide list. So, over the course of our research, we compiled our own list. Let us know what we missed!

An Incomplete List of Vermont's Patches of Old Growth Forest, by Brave Little State

Some of these sites are better-suited to visitors than others. Please do your research before taking a field trip! 

*Source: The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast, by Bruce Kershner & Robert T. Leverett

^Source: Hands On the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape, by Jan Albers

Disclaimer: There may be disagreement about whether some of these areas are technically "old forest." Why? Keep reading!

Now, to be clear, we’re not talking about a ton of acreage.

“In general, we have less than half a percent of the old growth that we once had remaining east of the Mississippi,” says Bill Keeton, a professor of forest ecology and forestry at the University of Vermont. “So, nowhere in the eastern United States is there more than 1% that’s in old growth.”

Related: Vermont's "Big Trees" List

Keeton, who recently co-edited Ecology and Recovery of Eastern Old Growth Forests, estimates that in sum, there are about 1,000 acres of old growth across the entire state.

“However, New York has somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 acres, mostly in the Adirondack [Park],” Keeton says, “although interestingly it’s never been accurately mapped.”

Surprising things

Walking around Gifford Woods with ecologist Bob Zaino, we learn some surprising things about old growth.

#1: It doesn’t look the way you might think.

Old forests aren't made up of exclusively ancient trees; more often they feature a mixture of young, middle-aged and old trees.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“Right, so there’s that classic image of the thick, dark, woods with big trees and nothing else,” Zaino says. “And what really starts happening in old forests is that you get those big trees, but they’re constantly dying. They’re falling over, their tops are breaking off. And so there’s actually, in places, a fair bit of light coming into the canopy.”

This is not some mythical Avatar forest — it’s not even a dramatic redwood forest, like what you’d find in California.

“So an old forest has big trees, but it also has young trees and middle-aged trees,” Zaino says.

This is Surprising Thing #2: It’s not just about the big, old trees. In fact, Bob Zaino puts just as much emphasis on trees that are dead and decomposing. You’ll notice he doesn’t even say “old growth forest” — he just says “old forest.”

Downed, decaying trees are another signature of old forests.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“We can see standing here these, you know, one, two, three, four different downed logs that are in different stages of decay,” he says. “That’s a real characteristic of old forests.”

A tree that dies of old age or falls down in a windstorm turns into new habitat for animals and insects, and it can nurture new saplings. Zaino gets very excited about trees that have tipped over and exposed their giant root systems. These are called “tip-up mounds,” and they are a defining feature of old growth.

Much admired by forest ecologists, the exposed root system known as a tip-up mound provides important habitat for animals, insects and young saplings.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“So we can see here that on that tip-up, where that soil’s exposed, there’s new tree seedlings growing on it,” he says. “They get way up in the air so they already have that 10- or 12-foot advantage of light.”

But tip-up mounds are just one beneficial feature of old growth. Left to their own devices, ecologists say forests can do a better job mitigating flood damage and storing carbon.

This brings us to Surprising Thing #3: For all its unique characteristics and functions, there isn’t actually a clear-cut definition of “old growth” or “old forest.” (And yes, that is a logging pun, in poor taste.)

“The threshold age kind of varies by species,” says Michael Snyder, with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Commissioner Snyder and others say the general starting point is an age of 150 years or more. Then there are other factors:

“It’s age, and what we call complex structure, which is the spatial arrangement and sizes of the trees in a forest,” Snyder explains. “And then the third main component is minimal evidence of human disturbance.”

Complexity is key. And minimal evidence of human disturbance. Not none.

“So, not many stumps or tap holes in trees,” Snyder offers.

Bob Zaino says even the Gifford Woods may not have escaped the human hand.

“You know, I look around this place here, and there’s an abundance of sugar maple. And I can’t help but think about, has someone done some maple sugaring in here? Have they cut a few sticks of firewood? Depending on how you look at it, that may or may not be old growth forest anymore,” Zaino says. “But this is an old forest. And it’s a forest where nature is primarily driving what happens here.”

You can see “old growth” can become open to interpretation — and that’s probably why cataloging all of Vermont’s areas has been so tricky.

'They just hacked them down'

There’s a reason there’s so little old growth left on the Vermont landscape. You might be familiar with this history; if you’re not, here’s quick recap.

It’s a story that starts about 250 years ago. As settlers moved into Vermont in the late 1700s, they came pretty much for one reason: to farm. (And yes, at one point that included raising Merino sheep.) From the get-go, farming meant cutting down a lot of trees.

“I mean, they just went to town with their axes!” says Jan Albers, the author of Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. “I mean, it’s kind of staggering to think of just the human labor involved … They used to girdle them ... or they just hacked them down.”

This was an era of dramatic deforestation — a remarkable time when farmers cleared trees all the way up into the Green Mountains.

“And they were clearing up, up, up,” Albers explains, “so that by the later 19th century, Vermont was 75% to 80% clear-cut.”

Which of course is why there is so little old growth in Vermont’s forests today. But Albers reminds us that forests are dynamic — and even before humans, they were in a constant state of flux.

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“There were these climatic changes,” Albers says. “There are blow downs; there are forest fires; you know, different trees will start outcompeting other trees; animals can have an impact.”

Then there’s the beginning of human influence. Albers says people tend to think that Native Americans had hardly any impact on Vermont’s forests — but they did.

“They were cutting trees, they were making fires, they were making birch bark canoes,” Albers says. “And then in the period before Europeans came, they were farming.”

But Native Americans’ impact was nothing compared to what the settlers did. By the late 1800s, they’d cleared three-quarters of Vermont’s land.

This 1886 depiction of Windsor shows the cleared hillsides surrounding the village. By the late 1800s, three-quarters of Vermont's land had been cleared for farming.
Credit Library of Congress

“And this makes the opposite of the landscape we have today,” Albers points out, “which is 75 to 80% forested.”

That brings us back to something our question-asker, Andrew, wondered about: How did the trees that were left standing manage to escape the axe?

“I would say it was an accident of history,” Albers says. “A very felicitous and happy accident.”

The larger conservation movement of the 20th century certainly helped all Vermont’s forests, but Albers guesses that any patches of old growth that survived did so by luck.

“It's kind of an amazing thing that these little pockets have just escaped,” she says. “It probably has more to do with land patterns than anything, you know, somebody has a farm and they never got that back 40 completely cut down — they had their hands full with the front 40. [Or] maybe that was just some farmer’s favorite hunting spot … You know, ‘Let’s just keep that woods because that’s where I always see the deer.’ So that would be my guess.”

A process of discovery

Let’s return to something that Bob Zaino said earlier: “I think most of the places that are old forest we may not even know about, because no one’s gone in there to count the tree rings and look for them.”

Even though the overall percentage of old growth is super low here, there are still pockets that haven’t been identified yet. This adds an element of mystery, and ongoing discovery.

Dan Wells was a graduate student at the University of Vermont in 2005 when he identified an area of old growth that people hadn’t known about.

“So I walk in and I go, ‘Oh wow, this is either old growth or it’s something very close to it,’” he recalls of entering the area on the border between Warren and Granville, right along the Austin Brook. He’d found it by looking at an old Forest Service map that showed cut dates from logging.

“And this little spot had an estimate that said ‘1820???’ And there were two things that intrigued me,” Dan says. “One was that I rarely see them use multiple question-marks ... And then the second thing was 1820, even if it had been cleared in 1820, is extremely old.”

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It was clearly a special experience for Dan.

“It had enormously mature — there’s some very large sugar maple in there, there’s some very large eastern hemlock, there’s the largest white ash I’ve ever seen is in there,” he says excitedly.

There’s more structured discovery happening, too, under Vermont’s Current Use program, which taxes farms and forestland for their “use value” rather than their fair market value. Back in 2008, the program added six categories of “ecologically significant” areas.

“And one of those categories was what we call old forest,” says Forest Commissioner Michael Snyder. “And that’s great, and some landowners have chosen to enroll their pieces.”

“How Can I Tell If My Woods Are Old Growth?” Read a chapter from Michael Snyder’s new book, Woods Whys: An Exploration of Forests and Forestry.

Thanks to this program, Snyder says his department has started to learn about hitherto unknown fragments of old growth all over the state, from a couple acres in size to a couple hundred acres.

“We continue to stumble on, in some ways almost literally stumble into areas and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ Because as I like to say, you can feel the difference in a truly old forest,” Snyder says.

Surprising stands

And then there are places of old growth sitting in plain sight.  

On another spring afternoon (this time a very wet and muddy one), ecologist Bob Zaino shows Brave Little State a patch of old growth in the the natural area of Kingsland Bay State Park, in Ferrisburgh.

Down a short wooded path toward Lake Champlain, Zaino leads us out to a small cove that looks across to New York. There are rocky cliffs on each side of the cove, jutting out into the water.

Zaino points out a stand of northern white cedars that appear to be clinging to the edge of the cliff. They don’t look that special — they certainly don’t look that old. But looks are deceiving.

“They have a harsh life out on the cliffs, and they're not going to grow big and tall and straight. They're stunted and twisted; their branches are broken off,” Zaino says, “but these could easily be 200-, 250-year-old trees. Right here.”

Who would have guessed? The weathered white cedars on these rocky cliffs at Kingsland Bay Natural Area in Ferrisburgh could be upwards of 250 years old.
Credit Lynne McCrea / VPR

So we are looking at really old trees, right out in the open on the lake. Zaino says one reason for the longevity of the northern white cedar is that it loves the calcium-rich rock that’s here.

“It’s common here in Vermont, but uncommon elsewhere, so we have this unique setting compared to our neighboring states,” Zaino says.

And this “unique setting” brings up another important point about old forests: They’re not all the same.

“This is quite a contrast to Gifford Woods where we were looking at a northern hardwood forest of beech, birch and maple,” Zaino says.

And that means some of the species that live here are different, too — such as peregrine falcons nesting on the cliffs. Zaino says the diversity and complexity of well-established systems in old forests like this one make them more resilient to threats like invasive species. But that doesn’t make them immune.

“Just like Gifford Woods, the threats that these places face are the same threats that all of our natural areas, all of our forests face: It's things like invasive species, it's fragmentation and development,” Zaino says.

And what especially worries Zaino is climate change:

“I think that climate change is a big threat to places like this, particularly when we think about changes in precipitation and temperature,” he says. “These places are going to change and we're not going to be able to keep them what they are now. So what’s going to happen here? I think it’s a big question, and it’s what worries me.”

The future of old forests

“I don’t want to diminish the significance of those remaining fragments,” says Bill Keeton, the UVM professor we met earlier. “Those are important, and we need to conserve them, but from my standpoint I’m more interested in the prospects for the future.”  

With all due respect to our question-asker Andrew, Keeton says we should be asking a different question about old growth:

“I would ask: What is the future of old growth on the New England landscape, and in Vermont? And does it have a future? Are there places where we might try to restore and promote old growth forest?”

Keeton takes Brave Little State on a tour of the UVM Jericho Research Forest. He’s been working on an experiment here for almost 20 years. And when he started out, the forest was, like, an adolescent forest.

“Your very typical kind of young to mature secondary northern hardwood hemlock forest,” Keeton recalls.

Most of the trees were 60 to 80 years old — “just very homogeneous,” he says. And Keeton was wondering: Is it possible to help the forest age?

“How do we take a structurally simple forest like this, that’s in this kind of mid-stage of development, and how do we push it along, faster, towards that more complex later stage of development?” he asked.

UVM's Bill Keeton has been testing methods to help young and middle-aged woods develop some of the beneficial characteristics of old growth.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

You can’t speed up time, but can you help the woods develop some of the beneficial characteristics of old growth? It turns out the answer to that question is yes.

“So I’m about to show you this experiment where we’re testing something called Structural Complexity Enhancement…” Keeton says, leading the way through the woods to a series of plots where he’s been testing methods to help promote the conditions of old growth.

“So, right here you’ve crossed a boundary line … into what we’ve created here, and I hope you’ll notice the differences as we walk in,” Keeton says.

There are more downed trees than elsewhere in the forest.

“Thanks for noticing! And I’m particularly proud of this right here, this tip-up mound, as we call them, which we’ve created all throughout here,” Keeton says, gesturing to an uplifted root system.

Instead of waiting for the wind to blow this tree over, Keeton used a skidder to pull it down and tip up its root mass. And just like the tip-up mounds in Gifford Woods, this one is now sprouting little yellow birch and hemlock.

“Which is just incredibly gratifying to me to see how well this has worked,” he says.

Keeton, who wants to help landowners understand how to promote the conditions of old growth on their own property, says we need to do away with the desire for neat and tidy forests.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

There are other downed trees in the area, and also standing dead trees. This is all Keeton’s handiwork. And frankly, it looks pretty messy.

“That’s exactly what we’re going for!” Keeton says. “The minute you cross the boundary, it becomes messier. You see the downed wood, you see the big dead trees that we’ve created there and there, you see the gap in the canopy, you see the tip-up mound, you see the multi-layered canopy with trees of all sizes and ages in different positions in the canopy.

“To some people that looks messy, it looks cluttered. And they don’t like that, it doesn’t fit the ideal that some people have of a forest. And yet that’s precisely what we’re going for here, because those are the characteristics of an old forest.”

Related: Mimicking Mother Nature, UVM Scientists 'Nudge' Forests Toward Old Growth Conditions

Keeton has been testing these methods for 16 years, but he’s run some models to figure out that he’s helped this plot “age” — which is to say, develop characteristics associated with old growth — about twice as quickly as it would on its own. It’s also storing more carbon than plots with conventional management, a.k.a. logging. And Keeton firmly believes that anyone who owns forestland can promote old growth conditions, whether you’re logging or just tending to the woods behind your house.

“Leave some of those brush piles on the ground. Leave the woody debris, leave the slash,” he says. “Think of all that stuff as habitat. Think of it as carbon, think of it as services that that forest has provided. We have to move away from this ideal of the clean forest. … That might be aesthetically pleasing, like a park, but it’s not nearly as good for a lot of wildlife and other things.”

We learned earlier that Vermont’s old forests are facing the same threats as the rest of our woods. Keeton is particularly concerned about invasive species, and he says they may ultimately transform what Vermont’s old growth looks like.

“Hemlock woolly adelgid, Asian longhorn beetle, emerald ash borer, beech bark disease — which of course has already decimated the large beech — all of these things are going to interact with climate change and they’re going to stress this ecosystem,” he says. “And so how all of that’s going to play out into the future is still uncertain, but I’m convinced that there is a role for old growth on the landscape in the future.”

He’s convinced, Keeton says, because when it comes to climate change, forests with old growth conditions may be more resilient:

“The recent research has shown that old growth is highly resistant to climate, or at least more so than other kinds of forest.”

Andrew's reaction

“Hmm. That’s really interesting, the idea that you can create characteristics in the ecosystem of the old growth forest. That’s really interesting.”

We looped back to our question-asker Andrew to share our answers to his question. He was surprised.

“I was particularly surprised about how certain places became preserved, like this aspect of some of them being overlooked,” he said. “I’m also really interested and somewhat surprised by what they would just look like. It’s challenging some of my conceptions of what those those places are actually like.”

And Andrew says that now that he’s learned a little, he wants to learn more:

“And now I want to go to Gifford Woods and see what that’s like, and potentially some other places.”

Update 5:31 p.m. 6/14/19 Our incomplete list of old growth areas has been updated to include a contribution from Bennington County Forester Kyle Mason. "There’s one you missed on [Mt.] Equinox," Kyle writes. "If you are at the top and you walk down the hiking trail, you start in a Spruce stand. As soon as those trees turn into hardwoods, you are in the old forest."

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Editing this month by Mark Davis. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions. Engineering support from Chris Albertine; digital support from Meg Malone.