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Conserving The Health Of Our Local Forest Community

Colby Hill Ecological Project

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. VFF applies the research findings of the Colby Hill Ecological Project to our ecological forestry outreach work, which you can read about below.

CHEP Researchers & Research Reports

CHEP On the Ground

Lessons From CHEP


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Though the biological monitoring of the Colby Hill Ecological Project began in 1998, the roots of the project lie much deeper. The Andersons purchased the land—once four separate dairy farms—in the early 1960s. These 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 followed what Lester referred to as “leave it alone” stewardship on most of the acreage, allowing the natural communities on those lands to evolve naturally, or “re-wild.” After Lester and Monique passed, each of their three tracts of land --  Wells (112 acres),  Fred Pierce (168 acres), and Guthrie-Bancroft (436 acres) --- were conserved as forever-wild by conservation easements held by the Northeast Wilderness Trust.

Interested in long-term scientific assessment of the biodiversity of these re-wilding lands, the Andersons worked with ecologist Marc Lapin to develop the CHEP research program. Lester Anderson hoped that the knowledge gained through this ecological monitoring could inform stewardship practices on actively managed forestlands. Much like Aldo Leopold described the 500-acre arboretum he helped establish in Wisconsin (below),  Lester described the CHEP lands as “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 wilder and healthier.


“Our idea, in a nutshell, is to reconstruct... a sample of original Wisconsin – a sample of what Dane County looked like when our ancestors arrived here in the 1840s…. [The arboretum will] serve as a benchmark, a starting point, in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men and a civilized landscape.” 

– Aldo Leopold, describing the purpose of the 500-acre arboretum
he established in Madison, Wisconsin. A similar intent drives the Colby Hill Ecological Project.


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.

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 land—its 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.”