hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2019


Creating a community forest

Deal preserves land at a village’s edge for education, recreation



A group visiting the new Cambridge Community Forest last month included Alex Dery Snider, Elliott Norman, Bill Arnold, Sarah Ashton and Jared Woodcock. George Bouret photo


Contributing writer


A wooded hillside on the edge of the village of Cambridge, the field-trip destination for generations of Cambridge Central School students, has become Washington County’s first community forest.

The 140-property, a short walk from the local school campus, will be preserved for future community use after the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a regional farmland preservation group known by the abbreviation ASA, purchased it in late June. The group bought it from a local family that had owned the hillside and allowed neighbors and school groups to use it for many years.

The deal represents a new approach to open-space preservation for ASA, which for the past three decades has worked extensively with farmers and other landowners in Washington and Rensselaer counties to keep land in agricultural use. Until now, the association has protected farms and forests by buying easements, leaving the land to be owned and managed by others.
“This is a pilot project for ASA,” explained Renee Bouplon, the group’s associate director. “We’re owning the land for public use. It’s new for us, but not new to land trusts.”

Although the term “community forest” may be unfamiliar in Washington County, the concept is ancient. In Europe and elsewhere, community forests are held jointly and managed by a town, village or district for timber or firewood production, other forest products, wildlife protection, environmental assets such as watershed protection and runoff control, and outdoor recreation and education.

Some community forests are centuries old. Town forests in the New England states, recognized by state statute, are managed locally for public good.

Around eastern New York, some other land trusts and conservation groups have conserved land for public use. Saratoga Preserving Land And Nature and the Columbia Land Conservancy, for example, have 10 public-access parcels in their respective counties. The Rensselaer Plateau Alliance maintains two community forests, in Poestenkill and East Nassau.


‘For future generations’
Jared Woodcock, who started the idea of creating a Cambridge community forest, grew up just outside the village limits in the town of White Creek.

“I’d hike or ride my bike through the woods from home to the village,” he recalled.
He also took field trips to the hillside -- and the stream at its bottom -- with Howard Romack, who for many years was a science teacher at Cambridge Central School.

Woodcock left the area for several years, returning to start a farm and raise his family in Cambridge.


Cambridge Community Forest Elliott Norman, and Jared Woodcock. George Bouret photo


“When I moved back, I thought it would be great to purchase the land and extend the trails” to the 1,700-acre Mount Tom State Forest just to the south, he said.

“A lot of people I surround myself with in the agricultural world, especially young people who don’t have land, are really into the concept of the commons,” Woodcock said. “Humans have lived with commons longer than with private [land] ownership.”

Now, he said, the question is: “How can we better utilize land for future generations?”
A few years ago, a for-sale sign went up on the cornfield between the brook at the bottom of the hill and state Route 22. When the sign disappeared soon after, Woodcock was afraid he’d missed his chance. But the forest had been subdivided from the cornfield and was still available.
Woodcock talked to local conservation organizations, including the Agricultural Stewardship Association and the Battenkill Conservancy, where people were open to the idea. Because the parcel was relatively small, “one owner makes sense,” Woodcock said.

The farmland preservation group, with its experience in real estate transactions, was the logical organization to become the land’s owner, he said.

The group had worked with the sellers, John and Barbara Merriman, in the mid-2000s to purchase the development rights to a large open field on Route 313. At the time, ASA had discussed buying an easement on the forest to create what would have been “the John and Barbara Merriman Park,” but the two sides couldn’t agree on a price, Bouplon said.
Later, after John Merriman died, his widow moved to sell the parcel.


Raising cash, making plans
When Woodcock approached the Agricultural Stewardship Association with his proposal to create a community forest, “it probably took us over a year to decide to do the project,” Bouplon said. “We thought long and hard about the pros and cons.”

As part of its mission, the organization wanted to demonstrate techniques of sustainable forestry.
“We would have preferred flatter land,” Bouplon said. “But we can do so much more with a property at the edge of a village.”

The group raised $110,000 for the purchase price plus $20,000 for closing and other costs. Much of the money needed came from an $80,000 grant from the Open Space Institute. Two other area nonprofits – Fields Pond Foundation and the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region – contributed $10,000 each. The rest of the funds came from ASA itself and from 12 local residents who wanted to support the project, Bouplon said.

“There was no government or municipal funding on this,” Bouplon said. “The property will stay on the tax rolls. The [ASA] board felt very strongly about that. We’ll do improvements and timber sales to cover some of the carrying costs.”

The group plans to raise another $75,000 to make the land accessible.
The Merrimans had built a bridge across the brook, known as White Creek or Furnace Brook. The bridge, which was sturdy enough to carry logging trucks, is in good shape structurally, but its wooden deck needs to be replaced, Bouplon said.

The group also wants to build a small parking area, install signs and a kiosk, and improve the trails. Funds raised locally for these efforts could be matched by grants and extended with donated labor, Bouplon said.

“We’re trying to put together what a [fund-raising] campaign would look like,” she said.
Over the longer term, she added, “we want to create a stewardship fund.”
“It will take a while to generate funds from timber stand improvements,” she explained.

Varied terrain and ecosystems
The Cambridge valley is mostly flat. The foothills of the Taconics rise abruptly along its east side. The Cambridge Community Forest is on a steep west-facing slope, going from White Creek at about 500 feet elevation to a peak of 1,080 feet in its southeast corner.

The property is primarily wooded, with stands of white pine, hemlock, red and white oak and other hardwoods on the hillsides, and sycamores and other water-loving trees along the brook.
Romack, now retired, said the property’s habitats include first- and second-level succession forests, the stream and its banks, an overgrown field, and ledges. The brook is “exceedingly rich in biodiversity,” he said.

Plants and animals include those common to the area as well as larger animals passing through, such as the occasional moose, bear or bobcat.

The land was logged most recently in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Bouplon said.
Stone walls show it was once cleared for agriculture, said Elliott Norman, a summer intern at the stewardship association, but the land is not known to have been the site of any past housing or industry.

Over the next year, Bouplon said the group will develop a management plan for the forest. Goals include trails for walking, hiking, cross-country skiing and mountain biking; provisions for fishing and birding along the creek; outdoor education programs; a gathering spot and place for picnics; and a demonstration site for sustainable forestry practices.

“Community conservation projects are part of our mission, but this serves community needs too,” Bouplon said. “The community expressed needs for more mountain biking, walking trails and outdoor education.”

A task force is working on preliminary plans and hopes to hold community forums in the fall where it can gather more ideas and recruit volunteers. The forest is expected to open officially for public use next summer, Bouplon said.

The land will be closed to motorized vehicles such as ATVs, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles, Bouplon said. It will probably be off-limits to hunting, since much of it is within 500 feet of houses on the other side of White Creek. There’s plenty of state forest nearby where hunting is permitted, she said.

Woodcock’s vision for the land is “recreation, education and managed forestry,” he said. “I’m really excited to see how it will change and evolve. I want to keep it pretty wild, with enough trails so that people can see most of the land.”

As people observe timber harvesting and other management activities, they can have conversations about what it means to cut down trees, he said. That can be through workshops, or “people hiking through can see what’s going on and ask their own questions,” Woodcock said.
The state plans to rebuild hiking trails in the nearby Mount Tom State Forest.

“Our hope is to work with private landowners to connect the two,” Woodcock said. But he added that the trail networks “will be complementary even if we can’t connect them.”


For townspeople and visitors
Cambridge Mayor Carman Bogle said the community forest will provide a new recreational resource for the village.

“I hear about a lack of public green spaces, especially from visitors,” Bogle said. “There’s a lot of green around, but it’s all privately owned.”

Some people drive to Lake Lauderdale, a county park about four miles to the north, or to state forests, to walk.

“It would be wonderful to have a place people can walk or bike to,” Bogle said, adding that the community forest might encourage visitors “to come here to walk and bike and maybe stay to have lunch and buy gas.”

The village comprehensive plan, adopted in 2004, envisions a green belt around the village outskirts. Although all but a sliver of the forest is outside the village, “this fits in with that,” Bogle said.

Supporters say the forest could be a resource not just for the school but also for the village youth commission, a nearby nursery school, local scout troops and others.

“A community forest is pretty unique for a village to have,” said Sarah Ashton, a community planning consultant who worked on the partnership that led to the creation of the Freight Yard project, a cluster of renovated buildings in the center of Cambridge, more than a decade ago. Ashton also worked on the town of White Creek’s 2011 comprehensive plan; she’s a member of the community forest task force and recently joined the Agricultural Stewardship Association board.

“A considerable amount of White Creek’s land is forested and in agriculture,” Ashton said. “This fits nicely with that and the village comprehensive plan to have a vibrant, walkable community.”
The village has applied for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant for technical assistance to link its green spaces with walking paths, which could also be connected to the community forest. Forest management demonstrations on the land “will be a huge contribution to agriculture and the broader community,” Ashton said.

White Creek Supervisor Robert Shay said attracting people to the outdoors “is part of what our town is about.”

“When we did the town comprehensive plan, we were great believers in maintaining our open space and views,” Shay said. “I think it’s great any time you can open up space for people to enjoy.”

Shay said his one concern is for people living just across the brook from the forest. He’s already heard from residents who are wary of the idea of opening up the forest to public use, he said.


A place to discover nature
Officials at other area nonprofits that have pursued the concept say community forests have proven to be a boon to their communities.

Jim Bonesteel, executive director of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, described the role of his organization in creating the Poestenkill Community Forest in 2015 and the Albert Family Forest in East Nassau in 2017.

“We’ve had a great experience with the community forests,” Bonesteel said. “They’re both managed by committees of community members.”

Those local committees are given a lot of latitude in how they run the properties, he added. The forests host hikes, nature programs, ski touring and snowshoeing, and they serve as demonstration sites for forestry best management practices. The Saratoga Mountain Bike Association is building biking trails in the Poestenkill forest.

“Some of the close neighbors at Poestenkill were concerned about traffic, litter and vandalism,” Bonesteel said.

But an engineering study showed the forest would add about as much traffic to local roads as one single-family home, and that traffic would not be occurring at peak travel times, he said.
When the Albert Family Forest was under development and residents there raised the same objections, Bonesteel said his organization invited some of Poestenkill’s neighbors to talk to them.

“They said the people who come to community forests pick up after themselves: ‘The people who come out are great; we learn so much from them,’” Bonesteel said. “Now the Albert Family Forest neighbors feel the same way.”

Romack, the retired science teacher, sees environmental education as a critical function of the community forest in Cambridge, for both children and adults.

Recreation is important -- “once the recreational aspects of education are diminished, education stops” – but it’s the opportunity to learn that’s even more crucial, he said.

“People don’t know the most common things in their back yards,” Romack said. “A lot of biodiversity is disappearing quickly due to climate change. We have to try to keep kids in touch with the environment, because the kids will have to be environmental custodians.”
Bouplon agreed that the project is of special importance to upcoming generations.
“We have to give young people a positive experience outdoors to help shape them as conservationists of the future,” she said.