Tapper offers relationship advice for forests

It wasn’t love at first sight for Ethan Tapper and his relationship with forests.

He took what he describes as circuitous route to arrive where his vocational wandering merged into his avocation.

But it was love that put him on that path.

Tapper’s first book, “How to Love a Forest: The Bittersweet Work of Tending a Changing World” comes out in September. And he’s come to a fork in the road of his relationship with forests. Following the advice of baseball player and guru Yogi Berra, he’s going to take that fork. Tapper is stepping down on June 1 as Chittenden County forester, a position he’s held since 2016.

He said it’s become clear that he can’t use the book as an educational tool and promote it while he’s a public state employee because it would be a conflict of interest.

Tapper began thinking of ways he could find a bigger platform to not only promote “How to Love a Forest” but also promote his vision of how we should care for and love our forests.

He is starting a business called Bear Island Forestry. One component of that business will be promoting his book. Another component is doing forest management, writing forest management plans for private landowners and practicing the other tradecraft of traditional forest consulting.

Ethan Tapper on his land, “Bear Island,” in Bolton. 
Photo by Daria Bishop
Photo by Daria Bishop
Ethan Tapper on his land, “Bear Island,” in Bolton.

While talking about his book, Tapper said he will be looking for ways to spread his forestry message. He also is planning to consult with both nongovermental organizations and government organizations about how to communicate forest and ecosystem management better.

A fifth part of his new business is producing things including maple syrup, firewood, wood products, other wood products and things like that from his 175-acre forest in Bolton called Bear Island.

Tapper grew up in Saxtons River in Rockingham in southeast Vermont. A 1907 history of the village includes a story of a settler who cut down the first trees in 1783 in an “entirely unbroken wilderness of immense trees of primitive growth.”

Although it was a rural area with a history rooted in forests, Tapper didn’t grow up infatuated with them. He describes himself as sort of aimless in high school, except he was a serious musician, playing classical and jazz bass.

In his senior year, he won a scholarship as the valedictorian, but it didn’t have a big impact on his vision of what he wanted to do.

“You know, it didn’t it didn’t help me work any harder that year. I’ll say that much,” Tapper said.

He went to the University of Vermont thinking he might study music. Or he might go into teaching.

“I felt pretty aimless at the time,” he said.

After two semesters Tapper was in his first serious relationship, and his girlfriend was very connected to the outdoors. She spent a semester in a wilderness program, and when she got back, Tapper could tell there was a distance between them.

“We were not connecting because she’d had this transformative experience that I couldn’t understand. That freaked me out,” he said.

On the spur of the moment, he decided to sign up for a six-month wilderness experience that was starting in a few weeks.

The 12 participants made a lot of their own gear and then skied north from January to March. During April they made a cedar-canvas canoe and canoed back to the home base in New Hampshire.

“That adventure kind of changes you, especially as an 18-year-old,” Tapper said. “It changed the whole course of my life.”

He became a wilderness guide. For two years he worked for a couple of wilderness programs guiding, teaching wilderness skills and homesteading.

Eventually, Tapper was notified that, if he didn’t use his scholarship, he would lose it. He didn’t want that, so he decided to return to the University of Vermont.

“I remember looking at a paper list of all the different majors at UVM and running my finger down it, and I saw a forestry. I swear that I did not know what forestry was,” Tapper said. “All I knew was that it had the word ‘forest’ in it, and so that’s what I decided I wanted to do.”

His wilderness experience only saved his relationship with his girlfriend for a little while.

But, Tapper said, “It saved everything else. All this incredibly positive stuff in my life now sort of goes back to this weird, spur-of-the-moment decision that I made for no good reason.”

The kind of rash romantic reasoning 18-year-olds may have used forever.

“How to Love a Forest” is sort of a memoir of his experiences working with Bear Island and what it means to be in a committed relationship with a forest. When he bought his forest Tapper sort of became a foster parent to some property with a lot of issues.

“When I walked through the woods, my impression was that there were no healthy trees. I literally thought that I could not could not find a single healthy tree,” Tapper said.

The forest had a 30-acre infestation of invasive plants that was the worst infestation he had ever seen. The deer were so overpopulated that they were limiting the forest’s ability to regenerate. All the roads were eroding.

“It had, what I would say, is basically every problem that a forest could have,” he said. “It was such an apt example of what so many of our forests are like.”

People don’t seem to realize that almost every forest is degraded from years of poor management and is missing vital components, habitats and key parts of our biodiversity that have defined our forests for thousands of years.

Tapper said he had to ask himself whether it wouldn’t be greater kindness, and much easier, to leave his forest alone and hope that all of these issues would resolve themselves.

But he decided that, if he rescued a dog with a lot of health issues, he wouldn’t leave the dog alone to heal on its own.

“Even if some of the medicine that you had to give the dog made you uncomfortable, wouldn’t you do it?” Tapper said. “Wouldn’t that be a greater expression of responsibility than saying, ‘You know, nah, I don’t really feel comfortable with doing that, so I’m just going to let this dog suffer.”

He feels that there are lots of books about how beautiful forests are, but there are no books about how our forests are threatened and what we can actually do to safeguard them.

Much of what needs to be done is confusing because sometimes it’s necessary to cut trees to save forests, he said. However, it’s difficult to find a balance between helping a forest and not interfering too much.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything we do in forests, Tapper said. “That makes it challenging to communicate because I would never say that forest management is categorically good.”

Good forest management means facing a countless array of different situations to figure out the appropriate amount of intervention. Tapper pointed out that our forests have been fundamentally altered over the last 300 years.

Almost any forest in Vermont that any of us has ever been in was cleared for pasture and maintained that way for around 100 years. Less than a tenth of 1 percent of our current forests, or around 1,000 acres in the state, is what is considered old growth.

Our forests are missing species and new species have been introduced, Tapper said. Major tree species have been lost to invasive pests and pathogens.

Forests are facing “a completely fresh array of threats and stressors projected onto them in a minuscule amount of time,” he said, adding that forests are being deforested, fragmented and polluted all at once.

Sometimes light forest management is called for, and sometimes heavier management is needed. But no forest management is the best management action for some forests.

In the past, there were management practices that were gospel that now are believed to be bad for forests. When Tapper was asked how we know if the way we practice forest management now will prove to be the best thing for forests in the future, he laughs because it’s a conundrum he thinks about perpetually.

“I ask myself this question all the time, and I ask it in my book, too,” Tapper said, “If we’re not worried about that, we’re not doing our job.”

Modern foresters, or at least the best of them, cringe at some of the forest practices of the past. He believes that now foresters are looking at forest holistically, considering ecosystems and all of the species that comprise them.

Now, he said, “We are also adaptive, and when we need to change, we will change. That is a fundamental difference.”

Tapper thinks that foresters today appreciate forests as more than just a commodity for timber or something else. “I think that really what makes us different from those people, that we look back at what they did and shake our heads now, is humility and the willingness to change and to adapt.”

Although he was considering music as a career when he first went to college and discovered his love affair with forests, he has remained faithful, to a degree, with that earlier infatuation.

He plays guitar in a punk band called The Bubs, described on the band’s website as a 10-piece, jumpsuit-clad, collective of Burlington artists, musicians and friends, who serve up white-hot punk and garage rock. Their album “Cause a Fuss” can be heard on Spotify, and there’s a video of the band performing at https://tinyurl.com/4p9bwwat.

Tapper is totally involved in forestry management during the work week. On weekends he is either working on or hunting in his own forest at Bear Island, or he’s volunteering for the Richmond Land Trust. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to write about forests. He is in a pretty monogamous relationship with forests.

He said, “All of those things are sort of like in the same world, where at a certain point they’ve kind of blurred together, but the band is the one thing that I do that’s completely different. I’m like, ‘Wow, I think that must mean it’s really important.’”