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Zack Porter: Celebrating life after death in Vermont’s forests

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This commentary is by Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees , a Montpelier-based organization that works to protect and restore forests on New England’s public lands.


“And out-of-doors in the gentle morning lie reminders of yesterday’s hurricane. Fallen and broken trees are everywhere…blocking your way at every turn. You cannot walk on familiar paths and trails, but you can explore the tops of giant fallen trees and walk on trunks and limbs where no one ever walked before.” — Robert McCloskey, “Time of Wonder.”

Just before Christmas, a “bomb cyclone” mixing 60-mph winds with rain, ice and snow, wreaked havoc on Vermont by disrupting commutes and holiday plans, damaging homes and businesses, and — most tragically of all — directly costing the life of at least one Vermonter.

The storm was, without a doubt, a natural disaster, a term we often use without much thought. But look deeper into the forest, and a storm that might be a disaster in our built environment becomes quite the opposite: a reenergizing force of nature that breathes new life into the land.

After the wind died down, my family took a Christmas walk in Hubbard Park, Montpelier’s quiet refuge for human and more-than-human. Passing seasons and storms bring constant changes to this urban wildland, but the storm of Dec. 23 reshaped the park in ways that made our communal backyard into a place at once familiar and foreign.

Scattered throughout the forest, once-towering hardwoods and pines were now missing their tops and limbs, creating cavities for birds and bats. Forest giants lay on their side, their roots tipped up into the air, exposing a web of holes and tunnels. Thanks to the fallen trees, small forest openings now offered extra sunlight to patient saplings. Plantation pines, planted years ago to help reforest heavily grazed hillsides, fell to the ground like a pile of matchsticks, making space for a more natural forest to return.

As we climbed over and through the downfall, I couldn’t help but rejoice. Nature was taking care of itself. A wealth of new habitat had been created overnight; it was a housing boom for plants and animals. A mature forest by Vermont standards was now even farther along the path toward recovering the characteristics of an old forest.

What makes something natural into a disaster? Dictionaries and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security define natural disasters in relation to the destruction they cause to human life and property. Unsurprisingly, our attention during a major storm is on the threat to our communities, the disruptions to our routines, or the pain felt when a century-old street tree, whose company we have enjoyed for years as a good friend and neighbor, succumbs to ice and wind.

And yet, the Christmas storm teaches us that extreme weather events — even those that are likely modified by climate change — may bring good along with the bad. The difference between what is natural and what qualifies as a disaster is a product of our biases, a sign of how detached our culture has become from the processes that have shaped this place we now call New England since time immemorial.

In the aftermath of the Christmas storm, many landowners and foresters may want to remove standing snags and fallen timber. This would be a mistake. What New England’s forests lack most, other than big old trees, is dead wood. Dead wood is the building block of a healthy forest and essential for clean water.

Due to land-use history and ongoing logging, our forests are often picked clean of this elemental material that supports all life, beginning with the smallest fungi and micro-organisms. In fact, it’s salvage operations, not storms themselves , that typically pose a greater risk to forest ecosystems.

Generally, the older, larger and less-fragmented a forest, the better suited it will be to withstand and adapt to the impacts of a “disturbance,” a term that ecologists use to describe the natural processes that shape an ecosystem.

Disturbances are anything but disasters: They are the forces that are elemental to a particular landscape; they make a place what it is. In Vermont, wind and ice are two of our most important disturbance agents. Counterintuitively, increases in the frequency of high-wind events with climate change may accelerate positive changes to Vermont’s forests .

The more that our practices and policies allow for or require natural disturbances to play out, uninhibited, the better off our region’s diverse ecosystems will be. Today, the vast majority of forests never experience natural senescence, restricting their potential for storing carbon, producing clean water, attenuating floods, and provisioning high quality habitat. An old, messy forest is a healthy forest … and beautiful at that.

If you are a landowner, talk to your forester about leaving snags and deadwood in place. If you are a concerned citizen like me, educate your elected representatives about the benefits of passively managing municipal, state and federal public lands to allow natural processes to reshape our forests.

Change is hard. Our favorite trees or patches of woods are like family members that we can’t imagine living without. But just as we would exalt a life-well-lived followed by a natural death, so too should we celebrate uninterrupted cycles of life and death in Vermont’s forests.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Zack Porter: Celebrating life after death in Vermont’s forests .

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