Fairlee Forest is a prime example of Vermont’s prevalent diverse forest, characterized by a wide variety of hardwood and softwood species. These include white and yellow birch, hemlock, white pine, red and white oak, red and sugar maple, beech, aspen, white ash, basswood, hophornbeam, and balsam fir, among others. Like all forested parcels, Fairlee Forest has many forest types within it, depending on soil, exposure, and other factors favoring certain specific combinations of tree species. Foresters call these distinct populations of trees “stands.”
Healthy forests make healthy habitats for wildlife. Healthy forests have a diversity of tree species, age classes, and three substantial horizontal layers: a canopy layer, an understory or middle layer, and a forest floor lush with shrubs and herbaceous plants. The more diverse and vigorous each layer is, the more wildlife species the forest can support.
Since Fairlee Forest has not been extensively logged since the 1980s, many of its trees are mature enough now, at 50-80 years old, to have closed the forest canopy over all but Bald Top Mountain, a few remaining log landings, and larger sections of wetland. Since the 1980s, natural tree mortality and severe storms have been the only disturbances to create openings in the forest canopy, and these openings are relatively small and quickly close again. Sufficient sunlight cannot reach the forest floor during enough growing seasons to support a viable crop of sun-loving tree species and plants. Over time, lack of sunlight can suppress the germination and development of less shade-tolerant species like oak, cherry, butternut, and pine, thereby decreasing the diversity of tree species and also of wildlife habitats. Many songbirds, game birds, and mammals (like deer) prefer to feed or nest around edges of forest openings or in the forest understory. A forest with many small to medium canopy openings and a good understory and floor will attract more birds and wildlife and contain a richer diversity of trees.
Professional foresters consider Fairlee Forest healthy except for its lack of age-class diversity, as evidenced by the continuous closed canopy. In many sectors this has resulted in an almost complete absence of understory trees and native herbaceous plants. Shade colonizers like hay-scented fern and invasives like Japanese barberry can move in, crowding out native plants like trillium and lady slipper, which are also suffering from over-browsing by deer.
Responsible forest management can use logging to create openings in a dense canopy like ours, thereby encouraging regeneration of diverse tree and wildflower species as well as improving the forest structure. This in turn improves food resources, brushy cover, and nesting sites favored by wildlife. Since openings also create opportunities for invasive non-native trees like buckthorn, foresters today use methods that hasten regeneration of desirable species after a cut, such as retaining seed-bearing “mother” trees and leaving slash (cut branches and roots) on site to become compost and shelter for developing seedlings. It may look messy for a while, but slash on the ground also makes excellent cover for small mammals and nesting song- and game-birds. A “clean” forest is a sterile forest.
The Forest Management Plan, drafted in 2014 by Redstart Forestry for the Fairlee Forest Board, describes in detail the various forest “stands,” geographic features, and special habitats in the Fairlee Forest and recommends specific “treatments” (tree harvesting) to improve the health and wildlife habitats in each stand over a 15-year period. The plan is available here and includes a high resolution forest map. However, this 2014 plan primarily addresses the timber harvesting aspects of forest management and not the overall management with recreation and forest conservation in mind.
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