Of Vermont's state parks and forests
In a recent commentary, Jason Gibbs, state commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, wrote an upbeat piece about his department “doing everything it can to generate economic activity and create jobs.”Not to nick-pick, but that’s a big statement — even for a politician.But let’s come back to that in a moment.First, the department gets to sing its praises, which are important for the public to know and recognize. In brief, Gibbs reports that the state’s forests products generate about $1 billion a year. To help grow this business, the state is encouraging timber harvests on state land “to help keep loggers working, trucks running and saw dust flying.” Importantly, the state is offering these harvests during a time when “many private landowners are holding onto their timber.” Gibbs says the effort will result in a nearly 15 percent increase in timber sales this year. In a soft economy, that’s no small potatoes.Gibbs’ department is also helping entrepreneurs establish biomass facilities and he oversees Vermont’s state parks, which contribute nearly $60 million annually to the economy and hire 280 seasonal employees. Currently, the state has 120 projects underway throughout the state’s 52 parks, of which the average project size is $50,000. He lauds Gov. James Douglas and the Legislature for providing $6 million out of the state budget for these projects and others, while other states have ignored this important sector.We couldn’t agree more with Mr. Gibbs, 32, that the “state forests and parks are valuable economic assets” and that it is our duty to be good stewards of these lands, but we take exception to the claim that the state has done “all it can” to maximize the benefits of these assets.Our hunch is that lots of residents in Addison County who make their living from the state’s forests, and others who are fans of Vermont’s state parks and backcountry trails, have many ideas to share with Gibbs’ department on how to better manage these resources and reap their highest value.We invite their ideas.To get the ball rolling, here’s an observation and suggeston from a mountain biker’s and hiker’s perspective, as well as a former trail crew foreman: • Two summers ago, a lot of rain fell in the mountainous areas of Goshen, Leiceseter, Salisbury, Ripton and Hancock in late July. Lake Dunmore reached near record levels as babbling brooks became raging rivers. Throughout the region streambeds were ravaged, bridges and roads were demolished and large sections of hiking and mountain-biking trails were rendered useless. While the roads and bridges have been repaired for automobiles, I was shocked recently when I biked down the Leicester Hollow Trail. What was once a beautiful, single track trail through a magical, narrow hollow with a small meandering stream running through it, is now a mile-and-half section of rock-strewn devastation. It effectively ruins one of the nicer and easier sections of hiking/biking trails that went from the Churchill House area on Route 73 in Forest Dale to Silver Lake, a high mountain lake and campground accessible only by foot or bike. The same is true for the highly-visited Texas Falls area in Hancock, where hiking and biking trails remain in shambles. In both cases, these areas are state treasures laid to waste.What can Vermont do? Redouble efforts to be sure we qualify for any federal economic stimulus money (call it natural disaster aid, if fixing trails doesn’t work); contact our congressional delegation and be sure they know of the devastation; seek help from locals and build state-town coalitions to determine how best to fix, or re-route, these trails. Seek and organize volunteers to help, if no state or federal funds are available.We’re not talking about a lot of work or resources. Two crews of 4-6 hard-working college-age students with picks, shovels, a chainsaw and a little know-how would go a long way toward making this area’s nicest backcountry trails passable again in a summer’s work. Without such an effort, these sections of the state’s forest will effectively be off-limits and the intrinsic value — both economic and quality of life — is largely lost.We invite Mr. Gibbs, a former Otter Valley Union High graduate, to swing by to witness the destruction first-hand. We also invite our Addison County readers to make suggestions for other ways Gibbs’ department can better reap economic benefits from the state’s forests and parks. Surely, the state has only tapped a fraction of the potential that lies within these two bountiful resources. Your ideas may help them achieve even greater benefits for us all.