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Conserving The Health Of Our Local Forest Community



Colby Hill Ecological Project


Spring beauty, Claytonia virginicaMarc Lapin studies the phenology of wildflowers on CHEP land.

Since 1998, a team of scientists has annually inventoried the biological diversity on 716 acres of private land in Lincoln, Vermont. Vermont Family Forests administers this project for landowners Lester and Monique Anderson. We also apply the research findings of the Colby Hill Ecological Project to our ecological forestry outreach work, as you'll read about below.

Though the biological monitoring of the Colby Hill Ecological Project (CHEP) began in 1998, the roots of the project lie much deeper. The Andersons purchased their land—once four separate dairy farms—in the early 1960s. The lands had been intensively farmed for more than a century. Much of the forest had been cleared for pasture, and the forests that remained were managed for sugaring.

After they purchased the land, the Andersons have followed what Lester refers to as “leave it alone” stewardship on most of the acreage, allowing the natural communities on those lands to evolve on their own, or “re-wild.”

Interested in long-term scientific assessment of the biodiversity of these re-wilding lands, the Andersons worked with ecologist and CHEP manager Marc Lapin to develop the research program. Lester Anderson hopes that the knowledge gained through this ecological monitoring can inform stewardship practices on actively managed forestlands. In his words, the CHEP lands will be “the control site against which the biodiversity, biological integrity, and water quality of other properties can be measured to set goals for achieving conservation objectives.”

Vermont Family Forests is putting that vision into action through its public outreach project, Re-wilding Your Working Woodland: First Lessons from a Self-willed Family Forest. This book, will be a guide to interacting with the forest in ways that leave the forest community—including the people involved in those interactions—wilder and healthier.

The Anatomy of Healthy Land: Creating a "base datum of normality"

When you visit your doctor, you trust that he or she bases both diagnosis and treatment of your symptoms on a broad foundation of medical knowledge of the human body, informed by the latest, most rigorous research studies. Because no matter how well intentioned your doctors might be, if they don’t understand the inner workings of your body, which conditions are “healthy and normal” and which are signs of disease, and how your body will likely respond to treatment, they may do you more harm than good in their tinkering. Erin Talmage conducts amphibian monitoring on CHEP lands.

Yet when we humans make management decisions for the lands we steward, we often do so with limited knowledge of the complexity of the land’s natural communities and how our tinkerings will affect those communities.

Over 50 years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote, “The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health…A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.” The Colby Hill Ecological Project is helping to create that base datum for this region of Vermont.

Nothing out of the Ordinary

There’s nothing particularly unique about the Colby Hill landits character and species composition are much like other forests on the western slopes of the Green Mountains. That's what makes its conservation so important. The baseline data scientists accumulate here will be applicable to a broad landscape. Says CHEP manager, Marc Lapin, “Conserved lands, and especially large chunks of conserved natural lands, are generally located at higher elevations or are centered upon features that are unique, such as the cliffs and talus of Bristol Cliffs and Deer Leap. The ‘regular’ part of the landscape, particularly in lower elevation zones, is often overlooked and is therefore under-represented in conservation networks.”