A Milestone for Millstone Hill—Land&People

A century ago, on Millstone Hill in Barre Town, Vermont, men cut blocks of granite from dozens of small independent quarries. Supplying stone for public buildings and the always-lively market for gravestones, granite mining made the nearby city of Barre prosperous—and left behind dramatic pits, chiseled gray cliffs, and unearthly mounds of waste rock. Old photos show not a single tree in sight.

But by the 1940s, the granite industry had consolidated and declined, and the small quarries on Millstone Hill were abandoned. "Left alone, nature eventually reclaims everything," says Pierre Couture, 56, on the porch of his restored general store on the flank of Millstone Hill. As the forests returned, Couture grew up on a nearby farm with the slumbering quarry land as his backyard and playground.

Today this landscape is dense with stands of sugar maple shading 30-foot-high granite-block walls; birch groves grow out of sloping rubble fields. Many of the pits are now shaded, ebony pools filled with fish. Wrist-thick, rusting steel cables—a reminder of the quarry enterprise— emerge from the ground beneath cool green hemlocks. The hill is coming to life with birds, moose, bears, and other wildlife, and also with cross-country skiers, snowmobilers from the local Thunder Chickens snowmobile club, kids with fishing poles—and especially mountain bikers bewitched by the vertiginous cliff-edge views and gnarly singletrack.

Two of them, Mike Fraysier and Cindy Lindemann, stop their bikes to consider my fate. We’ve been riding for about an hour since leaving the Millstone Hill Trails and Touring Center, housed at Pierre Couture’s store. Fraysier, a Barre City resident, is president of the nonprofit Millstone Trails Association, which manages 70 miles of trails on and around Millstone Hill—trails with names like Screaming Demon. "Should we take him to Roller Coaster?" Lindemann asks. "It’s not super crazyass wild," Fraysier reassures me with a smile.

I’ve seen pictures of this trail in several biking magazines: its twisting ramps swoop down over a huge jumble of boulders, just like an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. I’ve already made up my mind to walk that stretch. But I can see why mountain bikers from across the Northeast make pilgrimages to Millstone Hill. It’s one reason why the blue-collar town, working with The Trust for Public Land, has formed a plan to create a town forest on the former quarry lands. Making the land public will guarantee the future of a trail system that is loved by locals and an important source of revenue from out-of-town visitors—while providing income from timber and protecting drinking water.

"This truly is a great piece of property with an important history," says Barre Town selectboard member Jeff Blow. He also points out that the recreational benefits go far beyond mountain biking. "From the point of view of the municipality, this project is to support recreation of all kinds—to give all our residents, as well as visitors, access to open space."

If it succeeds in creating its town forest, Barre Town will be applying an 18th-century tool to meet a 21st-century goal and joining a growing movement of communities nationwide that have decided that the best way to benefit from and control the fate of nearby forestlands is to own them.

Forests for Communities

Town forests are a New England tradition dating back to colonial days. Towns once owned forests to supply firewood for public buildings and timber for local mills. By the end of the First World War, both Vermont and New Hampshire had passed "enabling laws" to help towns establish timberlands. The Great Depression created a new crop of town forests, when property owners failed to pay taxes on their lands and a town would assume ownership.

Today more than 160 towns in Vermont have town forests, which are also common in New Hampshire and Maine. Often these forests are little known and little used. But in the last decade, communities across the region have begun to show how locally owned, locally controlled forestland can be more than a sleepy woodlot on the edge of town.

It can be a tool to contain sprawl, maintain open space for recreation, protect water supplies and wildlife, and generate revenue from timber sales. Interest in community forests has risen along with a sense of urgency about preserving the region’s forested character. For the first time since forests began to reclaim farm fields in 19th century, forest cover is declining in all six New England states. This time it’s pavement and houses that are replacing the trees.

In response, villages and cities across New England are at the vanguard of a national movement to protect community-owned forests—or create new ones, as in Barre Town. More than 3,000 communities in the United States now own nearly 5 million acres of forestland, as residents recognize the multiple benefits forest ownership can confer. (On the proposed Barre Town Forest, the county forester has identified nearly a million board feet of high-value trees, worth an estimated $143,000.)

"This new community forestry movement is not necessarily focused on protecting traditional jobs in the woods—though some community forests are—but more on a broader set of benefits to a community," says Rodger Krussman, The Trust for Public Land’s Vermont and New Hampshire state director. In the last decade, the office has helped create or expand 11 community forests in those states totaling more than 25,000 acres.

The movement began to take shape in 2001, when TPL helped Randolph, New Hampshire (population 350), acquire more than 10,000 acres to create that state’s largest town forest and kick off the modern community forest movement in northern New England. In the years since, the forest has generated 5.5 million board feet of timber for lumber and paper pulp.

Just as important, the forest protects favorite hiking trails of the Randolph Mountain Club, pockets of old-growth trees, beaver ponds, and vernal pools hopping with frogs. Hunters, backcountry skiers, and three snowmobile clubs share the terrain. Small meadows offering spectacular views of the Presidential Range have been cleared to support breeding woodcock and migrant birds—meadows where houses would likely stand had the land been sold for development. "Recreation and wildlife are our bottom line," says David Willcox, one of three community members who spearheaded the effort.

As in Randolph and Barre Town, preserving opportunities for recreation is often an important goal of the new community forest projects, Rodger Krussman says. "A New England town forest serves the same purpose as a neighborhood park or community garden does for city dwellers—it’s where we can get outside to exercise and play."

But the idea of community- and municipal-owned forests long ago escaped New England. Atlanta, Georgia, owns a 10,000-acre forest. Jefferson Memorial Forest—owned by Louisville, Kentucky, and enlarged four times with TPL’s help in recent years—tops 6,200 acres and bills itself as a recreation destination for that city’s residents.

"The movement is really about reconnecting people with their forests," says Jad Daley, who leads TPL’s community forest policy work in Washington, D.C. "If you live in suburban Atlanta or Louisville, those forests are your Yellowstone National Park. They’re the most important forestlands in the world to you."

Daley has been helping to lead a national coalition of some 130 organizations in support of the Community Forest Program, a new federal grant program created in 2008 by Vermont’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy, and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The program will make 50-50 matching grants to towns, Indian tribes, and local land trusts to purchase land for community forests, with a focus on economic and environmental benefits, education, forest stewardship, and recreation. Barre Town’s project is among many nationwide hoping to tap into the $3.5 million available through the program’s inaugural grant round. This includes $2 million that Congress just appropriated for the program in 2012, despite a tough fiscal climate. Supporters hope that these initial grants will build interest in the program and spur greater appropriations in the future.

Barre Town Plans for Its Forest

Tom Stuwe believes that the new Barre Town forest has helped extend his life.

"About 20 years ago, I was 250 pounds," recalls the large-animal veterinarian, who lives only a few miles from the trails association headquarters at Pierre Couture’s general store. "I saw my uncles, 300, 350 pounds, die young of type 2 diabetes, so I started mountain biking to lose weight." Stuwe, now 63, and his daughters began riding a series of logging roads and trails near their home, and he eventually lost 70 pounds. "But people came, bought land, built houses, and didn’t want us riding across it," he says.

This was about 2005, when the Millstone Trails Association was formed, driven by Couture’s long-held vision of making the old quarries the centerpiece of a recreational renaissance for Barre Town. The land’s owner, Rock of Ages Corporation, which operates the sole remaining granite quarry in Barre, "has always had an open policy about the land," says Couture. "They get it; they’ve been terrific."

And so the trails association was able to open to the public 1,500 acres, mostly owned by Rock of Ages, and 70 miles of trails—many of them rugged, technical singletrack built by the association’s bike-loving volunteers. "These trails came along at a crucial time and had a big impact on my health," says Stuwe, who was demoralized without an easy place to ride. "I need the getaway for my heart and lungs—but more for my brain. Just the intense cardiovascular workout; really, it’s like Prozac," the vet says. "It’s a big area with a lot of solitude, and it’s a unique blessing for me and my family."

In addition to local riders, the trails began to attract out-of-town visitors. Millstone Hill has been praised in the Boston Globe, declared one of Vermont’s ten best mountain bike destinations by Bicycling magazine, and featured in other biking, ski, and travel magazines and websites. YouTube videos show riders braving Roller Coaster and other challenging trails. Couture opened a small lodge for visiting mountain bikers and cross-country skiers and a one-room museum beside the general store, where visitors can view historic photos and exhibits about the quarry lands.

Then the trails association got some troubling news. Rock of Ages was thinking about selling its land. "We initially saw that as a threat," Fraysier recalls. "If the land got developed, the heart of our trail network could be closed off. But after talking with TPL, we began to see this as an opportunity to preserve the recreational opportunities at Millstone in perpetuity. And this really is a rich piece of our heritage: the first granite quarries in town, established in 1790."

"It seemed as though, with right planning and community participation, we could find a way to protect these wonderful trails, and the whole forest, for the good of the town and surrounding region," says TPL project manager Kate Wanner, who worked with local leaders on the project.

The town formed a forest study committee, which developed a proposal to consolidate the Rock of Ages land with four other private parcels and the land of two village water districts into a town-owned forest. In addition to the hoped-for funding from the federal Community Forest Program, TPL has secured $310,000 from the state of Vermont and $255,000 from private foundations.

The Millstone Trails Association has committed to raising $100,000 from private donors. And despite hard times, town residents voted by more than two to one to put $100,000 toward the $1.3 million effort. "The town forest will have an immense positive impact on the economy of the region," says Darren Winham, who leads Barre Area Development, Inc., a nonprofit economic development group that has supported the project. "Retail and restaurants will spring up, and other employers are already seeing the biking trails as a recruiting tool for attracting new employees."

A recent study commissioned by TPL supports Winham’s optimism. It estimates that visitor expenditures for goods and services could total $2.3 million between 2012 and 2015.

Tom Stuwe hopes the deal can be finalized soon. "I’m still working full-time," the veterinarian says. "My work is very physical, and being able to get out and bike on those trails is an integral part of keeping in shape. This will keep me wrestling cows and horses into my seventies."

Of course, the health benefits of close-to-home recreation lands are not limited to rural Vermont. As community forests multiply across the nation, they could become important in improving public health in many places. As for my own visit to Millstone Hill, I made it uninjured over Roller Coaster, even biking a bit of it. I’ll look forward to getting back to the hill’s handsome trees, haunting granite, and twisting trails, hoping that by the time I return, they’ll all belong to Barre Town.

Joshua Brown is a science writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, and Conservation. He writes and teaches environmental journalism at the University of Vermont.