Yes, In My Backyard
Farley Anne Brown ’84 had mixed feelings the first time she cut down a tree. She was a college student in Vermont at the time, a New Jersey native who usually took nature walks armed with colored pencils, not a chainsaw. Even the thought of holding a chainsaw made her nervous.
Dressed in wool and long underwear, a bulky jacket and mittens, Brown trudged through the January snow toward her target, a balsam fir. Who am I to take this tree? she thought along the way. It’s a living thing … a living system.
But at Sterling College, cutting down a tree is part of the curriculum. The tiny school in the woods takes a hands-on approach to preparing students for careers in wildlife management and silviculture. Brown knew logging had its benefits—for one thing, wood keeps food on the table for landowners in economically depressed areas—but it had always been foreign, the work of men in hard hats and orange vests. Today it was her assignment.
At the tree, Brown and a partner passed on the chainsaw and chose a crosscut—a long, metal saw resembling a nightmare comb. Brown grabbed one handle and they pulled the saw through the bark. “There’s a wonderful rhythm that two people can get into while using a crosscut,“ she says. “It’s like cutting butter.”
The tree didn’t crash as she had expected. It toppled over slowly, like an overdramatic Romeo milking his final moments on stage. When the dying tree finally came to rest, the air smelled like pine.
Soon thereafter, Brown became one of 90,000 certified tree farmers in the United States. Tree farmers plant and cut trees in keeping with the rhythm of the forest to promote wildlife and minimize pollution. “Stewards of the land,” she calls them. To Brown, forest management is all about moderation, and woods are both an economic and an ecological asset. By embracing both, she has found a way to change the way Vermonters conserve their land.
In Vermont, where 80 percent of the land is privately owned, the primary challenge to maintaining the integrity of the forests is economic. Sawmills and lumber companies are eager to purchase trees; by selling privately owned forests, residents can lighten the burden of property taxes. Other residents, typically second-home owners, have been known to cut swaths of trees to improve the view. But if a landowner cuts down too many trees, sensitive wildlife abandon the area, which reduces biodiversity over the long term and can affect the entire local food web.
Brown is a quiet conservationist; education is her preferred tool for change. For over a decade, she served as executive director of Vermont Coverts, a nonprofit that teaches landowners how to manage their forests to benefit wildlife. (“Covert,” pronounced CUH-vert, means “a shelter for wildlife.”) At educational workshops, often held in her own woods, she would explain how heavy cutting disrupts local habitats, teaching residents how to remove trees while maintaining the land’s attractiveness to native species like black bears, ruffed grouse, and white-tailed deer. The trick, she would tell them, is to stagger harvests across time to mimic natural disturbances, and to grow berry patches in the harvested areas to prevent loose sediment from clogging nearby streams. At the end of each workshop, she would ask residents to share what they learned with friends and neighbors.
Brown’s educational campaign and the efforts of Vermont Coverts volunteers have helped make the Green Mountain State home base for the sustainable community forestry movement. Private landowners in Vermont have protected nearly 110,000 acres in the past decade—more than the state has added to its public lands in the same period. Private land can be protected temporarily, like when residents forgo the tax break for harvesting trees, or permanently, when they sign a contract that says their land will never be developed, thereby forfeiting some property rights.
Covert groups can now be found nationwide. Some environmentalists worry that these cooperatives are fleeting, and can collapse when land is sold or in times of economic hardship. The solution, Brown says, is in organizations like the Vermont Land Trust, which helps landowners preserve their land in their wills, encouraging them to think of their woodlands as an asset just like their stocks or jewelry.
Since Vermont Coverts promotes wildlife management through both the cutting and conservation of trees, it has support from environmentalists as well as hunting and logging groups. “Somebody once told me, ‘You’re standing in the middle of the road, and one day you’re going to get run over,’” Brown says. But 10 years later, she—and the idea of private conservation—is still standing. “We’re a hard target to hit.”
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life,” wrote Rachel Carson, founder of the modern environmental movement. It’s possible she was describing Farley Anne Brown.
Brown’s deep connection with nature began as a young girl in Haworth, New Jersey, 20 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. Long before her town became a bustling suburb of New York City, she and her brothers would hop on their bikes, ride to the woods, and build forts or enjoy picnics.
As a college student, Brown worked as a counselor at a girls’ summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains, where her love of the outdoors was born. In addition to leading canoe trips and climbing expeditions, she taught theatre classes, helping campers to improvise and to overcome stage fright.
Brown began college at the University of New Hampshire, in the White Mountains, because she wanted to be immersed in the woods. But after a year she transferred to Sarah Lawrence, partly to pursue her interest in theatre and visual arts.
At SLC, Brown tied together all her passions. She studied sociology with her don, Regina Arnold, and ecology with Ray Clarke, as well as the arts and environmental law. On the weekends, she and her friends would hang out in the Palisades or the Catskill Mountains. In the winter, they’d put on their cross-country skis and glide through Bronxville.
In 1982 Brown and her friend Rebecca Glenn ’84 took a semester off to drive across the United States, camping along the way. “We took our typewriters and sketchbooks,” Brown recalls. “We were going to write the great American novel.” They traveled to Zion National Park, Utah, where Brown was fascinated by the oranges and reds of the desert landscape. The pair’s goal was to get to Alaska. They ended up in Mexico. “We must have made a wrong turn somewhere,” Brown says coyly.
After the trip, it was very hard for Brown to come back inside. She wanted to take all she had learned at SLC and apply it outdoors, so she spent her last year at Sterling College. She became a professor at Sterling in 1989, and now teaches there full time.
Students in Brown’s watershed analysis and environmental policy courses explore Vermont’s lakes and streams as well as the workings of the state legislature. Her favorite part of the job is advising students. “I keep going back to sitting in Regina Arnold’s office,“ Brown says. “I learn a lot from my students as well. They take me in directions I haven’t considered.”
Brown asks her students two questions on the first day of class: What is your name, and what watershed do you come from? The students stare back, unsure how to answer.
A watershed, she explains, is a drainage basin, where all the water collected from lakes, ponds, and precipitation gathers together and flows out to sea. Sterling College is located near the Lake Memphremagog Watershed, which runs through Canada before draining into the Atlantic Ocean. New York City is part of the Hudson River Watershed, which begins in the Adirondack Mountains.
Every time a large patch of forest is cut down, the soil becomes unstable and gets swept into the watershed. The loose sediment can act as a major pollutant, changing the shape of a river and increasing or decreasing insect and fish populations, which affects the local food web. Pesticide and fertilizer use, excessive road paving, and even wayward dog waste can do similar damage. In the long term, unhealthy waters near Sterling College can alter the diversity of fish in Quebec.
So Brown teaches people how to live with Vermont’s rivers and streams. As part of a National Science Foundation grant, she invites residents and students into local streams to count insects. If the researchers find higher concentrations of mosquito larva or blackflies, for instance, a red flag goes up: these insects tolerate tainted waters that more sensitive bugs, like mayflies and stoneflies, cannot. Brown then brings her findings to the attention of local policymakers and environmental agencies. Sometimes the culprit is human, other times it is the result of natural processes like algal blooms.
Brown enjoys helping people connect with the organisms they share their ecosystem with. So when an 85-year-old landowner named Joan was thinking about putting insecticide in her pond, Brown gave her a behind-the-scenes tour of her backyard.
Joan explained that her grandchildren refused to swim in the pond because they would get bitten by unknown pests. Brown and Joan put on waders, stepped into the water, and collected the pests in bags. Joan took the bags inside and Brown helped her identify each insect’s family, genus, and species using a field guide. The biters, Joan found, included dragonfly larvae and caddisflies, food for the trout and pickerel that the children liked to catch.
“Joan went from wanting to put insecticide in the pond to explaining to her grandkids the importance of insects,” Brown says. “She encouraged them to ignore the bugs and swim anyway.” An offer the grandchildren refused, but for which the watershed was grateful.
“Wildlife is a touchstone for many people, regardless of their political beliefs,” Brown says. “So it’s a good entry point.” Once involved in protecting the wildlife on their own land, many people get involved with other environmental efforts. “People realize they can make a difference, and there’s a ripple effect.”
What Brown realized when she cut down her first balsam fir nearly 25 years ago is that saving one tree is not conservation. Her goal is to protect whole landscapes, which, incidentally, she enjoys painting in her spare time.
But sometimes education, incentives, and regulation—the three-legged stool approach to conservation that Brown advocates—is not enough. “Some people are bad apples,” she says with a laugh. “There’s no making apple pie out of them. You can only reach people who are willing to be reached. But that being said, I do have faith.”
That faith comes from years talking with private landowners and seeing the consequences of those conversations: the second home-owner who decides not to pave his driveway with pollutants; the tomato-grower who opts out of using toxic pesticides; and the family that leaves enough trees standing so that deer have a place to hide. For Brown, this is proof that education is enough incentive for change.
Learn more about Vermont Coverts at vtcoverts.org
Joseph Caputo '07 is a freelance science writer based in Salem, Massachusetts.