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Families buy shares in forest

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MONKTON — Two conservation organizations and a group of area citizens on Thursday finalized a creative deal through which 16 people will buy shares in a 115-acre parcel of forestland off Boro Hill Road in Monkton.

The 16 shares — costing $3,000 each — will entitle the holders to not only enjoy the scenic and recreational amenities of the property, but also to reap a portion of the financial benefits of periodic timber harvests that will be overseen by a forester.

At issue is the Little Hogback Community Forest LLC, developed by the Vermont Family Forests (VFF) organization. The VFF is a nonprofit organization that promotes the conservation of forest health, as well as careful cultivation of local family forests for community benefits.

It was three years ago that the VFF approached the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) with the idea of offering residents shares in blocks of already-conserved property. The VLT would continue to hold an easement on the property, ensuring that it would never be developed. The VFF would hold a covenant on the land, while individual investors would purchase the underlying rights to manage, harvest timber, hike and camp on the property.

They got a chance to put the idea into motion in 2004 when a Monkton landowner — who wants to remain anonymous — agreed to donate a 115-acre parcel off Boro Hill Road. The VLT agreed to conserve the property and sell it for use as the Little Hogback Community Forest LLC.

“It is wonderful there are people out there who want to do good things,� Deb Brighton, a member of the VFF board of directors, said of the land donor.

The town of Monkton had assessed the 115 acres in question at more than $200,000. Its conserved value was approximately $61,000, but another donor stepped in with a financial contribution to further draw down the cost of the “buy-in� for shareholders.

“We wanted to make it financially doable for people,� noted Brighton, who said seven of the 16 shareholders qualified for loans to help them cover the costs of their $3,000 buy-ins.

A business plan for the Hogback Community Forest LLC calls for:

• The land to be managed as an “undivided unit� to protect forest health and to provide opportunities for recreation as well as timber and firewood. The management costs and proceeds from the land will be divided equally among the shares.

• The LLC members to hold the rights to manage and use the land, while the VLT will hold the conservation easement. The VFF will hold an option to repurchase the shares, should they be offered for sale. VFF will also serve as manager of the parcel.

• Periodic timber sales to generate revenues that will first help manage the property and ensure payment of property taxes. Additional revenue will be distributed evenly amongst shareholders, who are limited to two shares per household. The shares are expected to increase in value over the years as the timber on the land matures and as the price of wood rises.

Thursday saw shareholders and representatives of the VFF and VLT sign the final paperwork to formally establish the Little Hogback Community Forest. Shareholders ranged from the very affluent to people of limited means, and even included the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center (PHCC). The forestry chapter of the PHCC’s Natural Resources program purchased a share. The students raised the money through maple syrup production, chopping firewood and heavy equipment projects, among other activities.

“This looked like an activity where the skills these kids may be gaining might be something the other (shareholders) could use,� said Bill Scott, a longtime teacher with the PHCC’s Forestry and Natural Resources program who is retiring this year. Scott has passed the baton to John Bradley, who will now lead the program.

“We are looking forward to having a land lab and being able to get out and do different aspects of forestry management, from identification to harvesting, chainsaw work and the whole business,� Bradley said. “It makes a really good place to put students.�

Monkton resident Lee Kauppila serendipitously learned of the Hogback project last March through a Google search on his computer.

“I was contemplating my shrinking woodpile and I was wondering if it was going to make it to the end of the year,� Kauppila said. “I read all the stuff on the (VFF) Web page and I said, ‘How cool is that?’�

He and his wife donned their snowshoes and cased the Hogback property. They liked what they saw, and decided to buy what was the last one of the available 16 shares.

Kauppila is now pleased to not only have a source of firewood, but a stake in a natural resource that he and his family will be able to enjoy for years to come.

“My family doesn’t have a lot of money, and we wouldn’t be able to be in on forestland except under these circumstances,� Kauppila said.

That’s the kind of testimonial that warms the heart of VFF board President Paul Ralston. He said the kind of diverse public involvement made possible by the Hogback project will be essential in making sure Vermont forestland is well managed in the future

“If we’re going to have sustainable forestry, we need sustainable forests, and if we’re going to have sustainable forests, we’re going to have to have the community involved in ownership of those forests,� Ralston said.

VFF officials would like to see the Hogback project replicated in other parts of the county and state.

“We look at this as a pioneering effort,� Brighton said.

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