As a kid growing up in the wilderness of Maine, I always wanted to know what was around the next ridge. That was my religion. Forget following trails or using maps — it was about somehow getting to that spot at the top of the mountain, knowing there’s got to be a way to get up there.
It was Junior Poor — an older family friend who was like a father to me — who demonstrated what living in symbiosis with the forest could look like. He was an eccentric character with a twinkle in his eye that never seemed to go away, even into his late 90s. In my teens we’d build benches from the forest timber and fish on Upper Richardson Lake. We’d restore canoes and look for fossils. Junior was fascinated by the history of the land and the story it could tell.
He inspired me to work on trail crews. They’ve become this transient home for me. I’ve worked on the south coast of Alaska and the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I was one of the first people to believe in the vision of the International Appalachian Trail, and I helped get a crew together to build the trail in Newfoundland. After a long day of work, when we’re building a fire at the base camp, I see the forest through a new perspective: One crew member might know a whole lot about geology, or another is an amateur bird-watcher. I think we’re most capable of meaningful environmental work when we embrace different vantage points.
But for the majority of my adult life, this was only half of who I was. It almost felt like I was leading a double life, pursuing a career in nonprofit finance, yet spending all of my free time on trail crews. It wasn’t until I turned 50 that I decided to go back to school for forestry. It was a pivotal point — I felt as if I wasn’t doing justice to the little boy in the Maine woods. So I switched courses in the middle of my life.
I ended up in Vermont when I started working on the Timber Crew for the Green Mountain National Forest, and also landed a spot on the Committee on Forest Policy for the Society of American Foresters. My colleagues were scientists and loggers from all across the United States. One remarkable thing I learned while on the committee was that there is a direct connection between forest management in New England and clear-cutting in the Amazon, or even Siberia.
This is because the demand for hardwood remains relatively constant regardless of its origin. We believe that by harvesting responsibly in the Northeast, we take off some pressure from unregulated timber markets in other parts of the world, where the destruction of forested land has searing and long-term impacts. In Siberia, harvesting operations have bled into virgin forest territory, and there’s starting to be huge issues with wildfires and temperature shifts as a result. I’m not saying that we should have huge increases in harvesting in places like Vermont but, rather, recognize the impact that one forest has on another in our globalized landscape, even halfway across the world.
Forest management is more complex than ever. We’ve seen an enormous decline in the quality of timber stands across the region because of continued harvesting of private land. The biggest risk I see to the health of our forests — even more so than climate change — is the increased fragmentation and privatization of land, which makes it nearly impossible to foster the healthy growth of forested land. I see it happening right here in Vermont, especially.
That’s why I’m at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, starting one of the first youth-oriented forestry crews in the Northeast. We’re trying to get young adults excited about working in forest management, to mentor a generation of young people interested in environmental work. I think in a way I’m trying to impart a little bit of what Junior offered me when I was growing up, a glimpse into the magic of a forest.
Jas Smith, 61, is the conservation forestry manager at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Rachel Hellman is a journalist based in New York’s Hudson Valley.