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A history of 'common forests': backyard woodlands invite diverse public use and lay the groundwork for cooperation on larger issues. A look at how they began in the United States.

Charting a path through the thicket that is America's conversation about forest use is no simple proposition. Opposing points of view often are firmly fixed, and understandably so. When commercial or industrial access to forest resources is withdrawn or restricted, those whose livelihoods depend on these resources face immediate and potentially severe economic and social consequences.

Yet the history of America's forests shows what amounts to a breach of public trust by private industries. Such influences must be held in check if we are to find balanced policies. The health of our human environments is inseparable from that of our natural environments. We must try to create habitability through meeting human needs by way of an all-inclusive patchwork quilt of land-use ideas.

Community forests offer one such model. Agreeing on how these backyard woodlands should be used lays the groundwork for cooperating on larger issues. And community forests invite diverse public use, accommodating commercial as well as recreational activities and serving as common grounds where these activities' benefits to society become visible to communities at large.


American towns and cities have been practicing forest management for four centuries. Advocates observe that, in community forests, cultural and natural resources blur to the extent that distinctions become unnecessary. Clearly, in the quest for habitable environments for all species, community forests are a valuable piece of any land-use quilt.

America's ancient continuum of forest and community can be divided into five distinct categories: common lands, public lands, town forests, watershed plantations, and forest parks; lands owned by local conservation commissions, which gained popularity after 1960, are a sixth category. Familiar woodland ethics include: utility accompanied by stewardship; forests' contributions to community structure; European influence; and local efforts by foresters and surveyors for forest use and conservation.

Forested common lands comprised substantial segments of America's colonial 17th century towns, particularly in New England, where town proprietors established community settlements and controlled property divisions. Lands surrounding village centers were called the "common and undivided," and great woods, cedar swamps, pine plains, cow commons, ox pastures, and great meadows all were important segments of community structure. All, too, were used for forest resources in one form or another.

As woodlands quickly became depleted in these early settlements, proprietors in many towns began practicing stewardship, turning to customs transplanted from rural England, where the practice of culling forest resources without killing trees had long been established. Unfortunately, common lands steadily dwindled, and by 1700 most had vanished into private hands.


Yet proprietors in a few communities granted land to be held perpetually common, suggesting a focus on horizons more distant than immediate utility. Brunswick Commons in Brunswick, Maine, is one of the best examples of a proprietor's grant for unspecified public benefit. The town was chartered in 1717 by a group of Boston investors who reserved a thousand acres for perpetual common use. Until the latter decades of the 19th century, however, the commons endured an uneasy existence, vulnerable to encroachment, fires, neglect, and efforts by town officials to sell it.

Community interest finally prevailed, and the Brunswick Village Improvement Society began a plantation of white pine in 1900, on the eve of the town forest movement. Today, although diminished in size, this community woodland pays tribute to the foresight of Brunswick's planners and exemplifies one of New England's earliest planted town forests unrelated to watershed protection.

Seventeenth century town proprietors also set aside parcels of land to subsidize the costs of community institutions, primarily church and school. These glebe, parsonage, and church lots are classified as public lands. In contrast to common lands, ancient public lands survive in many regions and remain important parts of communities.

The church and parsonage lots in Newington, New Hampshire, the earliest of which dates from 1710, are superb examples and are antiquities comparable to England's ancient common lands in the sense that both are tied to community origins. Newington's public lands became a town forest when that movement gained popularity after 1900, and timber harvests helped to defray the costs of building a stone school in 1920. As at Brunswick, Newington's forest is today reduced in size, but these woodlands continue to surround this small village center.

Concern for depleted timberlands, emergence of professional forestry, awareness of the role of forests in ecosystems, synthesis of a conservation movement, and beginnings of wilderness advocacy, had all contributed to important national developments by the close of the 19th century. Awareness of these events filtered into public outlook and reemerged as community initiative in the form of town forests, watershed plantations, and forest parks.

America's small cadre of professional foresters turned to Germany, where many communal woodlands had evolved into carefully managed public resources. The 1886 appointment of Bernhard Fernow to head the new forestry division in the U.S. Department of Agriculture marked a turning point. Fernow, a Prussian-born, professionally trained forester, was well acquainted with ancient community forests in Germany and Switzerland and urged every American town to transform idle lands to productive forests, increasing local prosperity and educating the public about proper forestry management.

Despite Fernow's appeals, his immediate successors at the U.S. Forest Service did little to encourage public forestry locally, leaving that to private associations and state foresters. Both the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and Massachusetts Forestry Association (later the Massachusetts Forest and Park Association) became influential, particularly the latter under the leadership of Harris Reynolds, its secretary from 1911 to 1953.

By 1915, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont all had enacted enabling legislation, giving a category of local forests statutory definition. New York and Pennsylvania also developed active town forest programs during this period; the campaign eventually reached midwestern and western states.

Town forests grew from concern about the effects of deforestation and were managed for timber cultivation through sustained yield rotation. Foresters couched appeals to communities, however, in the broadest possible way and touted a variety of benefits including reclamation of idle farmland, employment, support of local wood--using industries, recreation, wildlife conservation, education, and subsidy for the poor.

Inspired citizens in Groton, Massachusetts, turned a poor-farm woodlot into a memorial forest to honor those who had served in World War I. Today, the Groton forest remains one of the region's most capably managed. (The idea of communities and/or individuals planting trees to honor soldiers was urged by AMERICAN FORESTS during WWI; it is a practice that carries on to this day. See American Forests, Spring 2003;

The movement's plantation phase emphasized land acquisition and planting. Fast-growing, commercially saleable coniferous types--white, scotch, and red pine, as well as Norway spruce--dominated plantations; seedlings were provided by state nurseries, often for free or at cost. The "Roaring 20's" became the movement's most prolific decade in terms of the number of town forests established and planted. Although emphasis on producing merchantable timber remained paramount, advocates generated local interest with strategic appeals to recreational users.

The campaign for municipal forestry also benefited from an alliance with water supply management. Spurred by industrialization, urban populations increased rapidly after the Civil War, threatening drinking water supplies. Many cities and towns responded by forming utility companies, building reservoirs fed by surface drainage, and purchasing surrounding watersheds to prevent pollution.

Cultivation of timber became a logical way to use these otherwise unproductive lands, and watershed protection developed into a successful branch of municipal forestry, preceding the town forest movement by a decade or two. With extensive acreage aiding silviculture, utility companies typically managed their lands diligently. Town forest advocates soon became ardent suitors of water utilities, and many watersheds developed into model local forests.

Between the last decade of the 19th century and World War II, towns also set aside forests as parks, principally for recreational use; such lands were often segregated from timber cultivation. Most were not designed in any formal sense, and they require few of the finicky and costly improvements that typify other types of parks. Roads and paths are slender, twisting corridors with borders quietly melting into surrounding foliage. Overlooks are occasions for change in scenery.


Although many such parks, especially those in large urban areas, have succumbed to a wide range of improvements that often damage the sylvan effect, other parks remain simple woodland reserves. Many are well hidden. In Andover, Massachusetts, for example, an unpretentious sign announces the entrance to Indian Ridge, a glacial kame retrieved from logging activity by the Andover Village Improvement Society during the 1890s.

By 1930, however, an assortment of problems had surfaced with municipal forestry on other than watershed lands. Many towns had acquired poorly stocked, cut-over lands that required intensive work to produce a crop of paying timber; young plantations were often neglected, and "volunteer" or "weed" hardwoods took over. Fickle town governments, lax bookkeeping, and competition with private interests were also problematic.

In response, emphasis shifted to more careful stewardship on plantations--weeding, pruning, and releasing. And, as profitability became increasingly illusive, the accent on recreation increased, revealing an underlying skepticism about communities' ability to manage commercially productive forests.

Finally, under Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the U.S. Forest Service began a short-lived community forest program, aided by forester Nelson Brown, a friend of Roosevelt and faculty member at the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse. The Forest Service's program focused on education and defined the term "community forest" broadly to include forests owned by community groups such as 4H Clubs, schools, and libraries. Brown traveled to Europe to study the Sihlwald and German community forests and, upon his return, authored a series of articles and monographs. Foresters Ernest Buhler, Joseph Fitzwater, and George Duthie also became active in the program's administration.

Aided by Brown's work, the Forest Service began to distribute extensive educational materials, the beginning of focused federal participation in the town forest movement. In 1933 the Secretary of Agriculture issued a document known as the Copeland Report, which recommended increased public ownership of woodlands, recognizing their potential for educational and recreational value, but calling them unprofitable for timber production in any larger plan.


In 1941, a congressionally appointed committee recommended Congress authorize funding to expand public forests, including community forests. The Forest Service, though, recommended deleting community forests, thinking the plan to subsidize the woodlands wouldn't pay for itself. It marked a turning point in the Forest Service's program.

The war years were difficult ones for municipal forestry, and by the early 1950s the town forest movement had peaked in all New England states but Vermont. As local conservation commissions became more popular after 1960, any lingering interest in town forests waned. Although the 1953 death of the Massachusetts Forestry Association's Reynolds symbolized the defeat of commercial timber production in town forests, the campaign proved to be immensely successful at introducing forestry to the people, just as Reynolds had envisioned. More importantly, it represents the first broad program by towns to reacquire long-lost public lands, a trend that has scarcely slackened and is being continued today by a variety of groups-land trusts prominent among them.

Some communities continue to harvest timber from their town forests. In Vermont, for example, the Calais town forest at Gospel Hollow recently yielded a profitable sale; proceeds went to the community's conservation commission.

Other towns have taken notice, and communities are now beginning to look more closely at their forgotten woodlands. Vermont's Urban and Community Forestry Council has encouraged these trends, and in October 2002 the council organized a "Town Forest Trek," in rural Calais. Participants traveled 25 miles by bicycle to each of the community's three town forests for discussions about forest ecology, timber harvesting, and logging equipment.

The event concluded in the village of Kent's Corner, where a 19th century water-powered sawmill has been restored to working order. That village is also being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places; one of the town forests, formerly part of the town's poor farm, will be included in the nomination. Few places demonstrate habitable environments as clearly as this tiny community.

Although forest parks, watershed plantations, and town forests historically represent three types of local forests, each is related in important ways, and each contributes to an interdisciplinary approach to land-use decisions. Addressing the annual convention of the American Institute of Park Executives in 1921, Filibert Roth, dean of Michigan University's School of Forestry, observed that "the forest does more and does it better than the park" and for the same or less money. Roth's advice was simple: "Let the people decide, and wherever the mass of visitors go, there fit the woods to the people, while in the rest, let the woods grow timber and serve as haunt of the few, the real lovers of the woods.

"By all means preserve the old, the large, the remarkable, the instructive; old oaks, rare hickories, fine clumps of hawthorn ... Where school children are taken in classes, leave rotten logs, dead stubs, and let them see the wild wood truly wild. This requires a few acres of land sacrificed to the visitor--it pays big, more than any special growth of timber."

The successful merger of human and natural environments is still our challenge. Although the potential for an alliance between those who would preserve the natural environment and those who would preserve the cultural environment has always been great, that union has proved illusive. Beneath a forest canopy, cultural history and natural history blend to such a degree that distinctions become unnecessary. What better place than town forests to begin such an alliance? What better place to find common ground?

Robert McCullough is assistant professor of historic preservation at University of Vermont and author of several books, including Landscape of Community. A History of Communal Forests in New England.
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Title Annotation:COMMUNITIES
Author:McCullough, Robert
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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