The U.S. Forest Service is beginning construction of a new headquarters in Mendon, Vermont. In addition to serving as a visitor center, the $6 million, 11,550-square-foot building will house the people responsible for overseeing the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont and the Finger Lakes National Forest in New York.
I spoke with Forest Supervisor John Sinclair about his agency’s work, the new headquarters and more.
Sinclair: The U.S. Forest Service in Vermont, we manage about 400,000 acres in South-Central Vermont. It's public land available for the public, we manage it for multiple use. It's a great area to recreate. It's a great area to hunt and fish, hike, and enjoy your public lands. Explore the land, explore the history of Vermont and get to learn a little bit about nature and get outdoors so it's a great location to be and recreate and be out in the forest and enjoy the fresh air.
Levulis: And how will the new $6 million headquarters in Mendon improve what the Forest Service does and what it offers?
Sinclair: The biggest aspect is it will provide that direct connection for the land. We're currently in the leased facility. It's more of a commercial space and this new office building will be on National Forest Service land. It will provide parking and direct access to National Forest land for visitors that are coming. It will also provide a greater face of the Forest Service here in Vermont on a natural transportation system, Route 4 corridor, that travels right along the National Forest aspects. The supervisor’s office is currently a little bit of a distance from the National Forest itself. This will allow visitors when they visit us and ask for information to actually be on the National Forest, provide that access to them and have a better understanding of the land and what we're trying to do.
Levulis: And you mentioned visitation there. And just over the border in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, there is a lot of discussion about overuse of the park, particularly in the High Peaks. What are the numbers like in terms of visitors to Vermont forestland, and do you have any concern about over use in your region there?
Sinclair: I wouldn't say it's not a concern. We're always looking to balance the use. This past year we've seen with COVID, a little bit more recreation, a little bit more activity in the outdoors as some of the other amenities that people would have enjoyed during their vacation timeframes weren't available to them, so our visitor use was up, but the land is there. It's for the public use and we have a lot of land. It's 400,000 acres stretching from South-Central Vermont all the way down to the Massachusetts border. There's plenty of land to space out and recreate for different uses. I would say that's the biggest aspect that we have here managing this parcel of public land is we have hiking trails, we have water bodies, we have developed campgrounds, we have dispersed campgrounds. There's something a little bit for everyone and everyone's interests. So we're not seeing a consolidated heavier use, some of our trail heads will be busier. But if people just continue down the road a little bit further, they'll find another trailhead that will bring them to an equally beautiful spot and viewpoint so there's plenty of land for the use that we're getting. We are one of the more heavily recreated forests in the country. Part of that is the ski areas that we have on the National Forest and bring in a lot of people throughout the year. So it's not a single time of the year heavy use, it's really spread out across the entire calendar year. And that benefits the land also.
Levulis: And now forest fires have killed many people and destroyed vast amounts of land in the western United States in recent years, are regions of the Northeast such as Vermont at a similar risk at all?
Sinclair: No forest fires here in Vermont aren't in to the same extent that you see out West. It's not that we can't have a forest fire. The landscape, the wet nature of our forests, we consider it a wet forest is concerned in comparison to the dry forests about west where the species composition of the vegetation needs that frequent fire aspects not to the extent of what they're receiving now and the intensity that they're receiving now, but fire is a natural component of the ecosystem in the West. We don't see that with many of our tree species here in the East. So what we can see fires here in the East they're generally of smaller size, they're sometimes lightning strike aspects in remote areas, or sometimes around campgrounds. During dry times of the year, a campfire will get out of control and burn a little bit of acreage. But in most cases here in the Northeast, we aren't seeing the intensity or large scale of forest fires that you see out West. It's just not a component of our current ecosystem. And they're easily responded to by both volunteer fire departments and we also have fire staff on the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forest that can respond.
Levulis: And would there be any benefits at all to say a controlled forest fire in Vermont or other areas of the Northeast. As a novice observer myself, when you get into portions of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks in New York, there's plenty of blowdown of dead trees. Is there a benefit at all to having those cleared out by fire safely? Or, as you mentioned, is it just part of the natural ecosystem?
Sinclair: It is part of the natural ecosystem. But with that said, we do a number of prescribed burns during the course of the year. We maintain some wildlife openings. We burn blueberry barons for natural habitat, wildlife habitat, public enjoyment of areas. So we do use fire on the landscape and historically it's been more in the spring timeframes that we would do prescribed burning to maintain some natural openings on the forest. We are also currently looking at moving some of our prescribed fire activity to the fall. Whether you burn in the spring or the fall it benefits different ecosystem types, plant species will respond differently to a spring burn versus a fall burn. So we're looking to diversify that a little bit, diversify our natural openings for the management needs. So fire is definitely a component of the Northeast, it's just not to the scale and intensity that you see in the West.
Levulis: And finally, John, are you able to overall gauge the health of the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests? In the Northeast we've increasingly heard about invasive species impacting certain tree species etc.
Sinclair: Yeah, we are not immune from invasive species by any means here in Vermont or the Green Mountain National Forest. We do monitor and evaluate invasive species. We work closely with for the Vermont Department of Forest, Park and Recreation in evaluating the health of the forest here in Vermont and the National Forests’ component of that. We work with them in identifying potential outbreaks or new infestations of invasive species so that they can be responded to and mitigated as soon as possible. So the health of the forests in Vermont is very healthy compared to some of the counterpart forests in the surrounding states. We were kind of an island here in the Northeast for a period of time with many invasive species right on our borders, but hadn't been found here in the state. So we're learning from others and we'll continue to learn. The health of the Green Mountain National Forest, the health of the forest in Vermont, it’s one of the healthier forests in the country. And it's a great resource to have in our backyard and to be part of our life.