Ethan Tapper, Contributor

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Whether you realize it or not, the lives of Vermonters are massively enriched by forests, both aesthetically (we are the Green Mountain State, after all, and the green on the mountains is forests), economically and culturally (through our working landscape and our forest-based recreation industry), and physically; through the clean air, water and other fundamental resources that forests produce that support the life of every living thing.

I call Vermont’s land ownership model an experiment—of the 75 percent of our state that is forested, about 80 percent of our forests are privately owned. If you, like me, own some forested land, you know what a joy it is, from being able to tromp around in your woods to being able to cut a little ultra-local firewood for your woodstove.

As a landowner I am also sometimes struck by the absurdity of private landownership. I wonder: “Can I own that cliff? Can I own that brook? Can I own that boulder?” I chuckle at how we draw a line through the forest and pretend that my land is separate from my neighbor’s. We increasingly understand that forests are massively complex, interconnected systems and to pretend that a property boundary has any real meaning in an ecological sense is silly. Whether I like it or not, my forest is impacted by the management decisions of those around me, and my management decisions have implications that extend far beyond my boundaries.

Private lands produce public benefits.
“My” forest produces the oxygen we breathe while absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, mitigating its effects on our climate. “My” forest cleans, shades and protects two small brooks, which contribute clean, cold water into the Winooski River on its way to Lake Champlain. “My” forest provides habitat for wildlife—from white-tailed deer to neotropical songbirds—that my neighbors and my community value. “My” forest produces firewood and lumber—local, renewable resources that help keep Vermont’s iconic working landscape working and provides economic opportunity for my neighbors and my community. “My” forest is even a piece of the beautiful Green Mountains, which anyone can see and enjoy for free from the top of Camels Hump or while you drive down I-89 on your way to work.

While you can go to the town clerk and find a deed with my name on it, I think that we could all agree that these benefits, produced by “my” forest, belong to all of us. They enrich the lives of my neighbors, my community, my state and my world. While I love the feeling of isolation when I’m alone in my woods, I think that one of the great joys of land ownership is knowing that the sweat and energy that I put into keeping my forest healthy contributes to healthier communities and a healthier world. I will gladly pay my property taxes every year just to know that I’m doing that.

In the book Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about how, when we purchase land, we purchase a “bundle of rights.” The American idea of “freedom” is largely based on the idea that we can do whatever we want on our land, within the law and these rights. Weirdly, these rights also include the right to destroy the forest, subdividing or developing it, fragmenting it with roads and houses. While it seems ridiculous that one person, in a moment, for individual profit, could destroy a forest that could benefit everyone for thousands of years, this is one of their rights.

Kimmerer suggests a more robust interpretation of landownership, that perhaps when we purchase land we also receive a “bundle of responsibilities”—some obligation to our land, to keeping it healthy and caring for these public benefits that affect the lives and the quality of life of our neighbors. Accepting these responsibilities may mean not exercising some of your individual rights to do something that is good not just for you, but good in the broader sense.

Being willing to forgo individual rights to keep forests healthy, protect our communities and make our world better is perhaps the most radical way to exercise our freedom as landowners. We can make hard choices to accept the responsibility, joy and of privilege being stewards of Vermont’s amazing forests, both for ourselves and on behalf of our neighbors, our communities, our world, and future generations.

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester and can be reached by email or phone at (802) 585-9099.