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Natural Heritage Elements - Landscape level


 

Contiguous Forest 

 

                The conservation of large forest areas provides necessary habitat for bobcats, wood thrush, and many other species.  

Definition

                Contiguous forest habitat is an area of forested land with either no roads or low densities of class III or IV roads and little or no human development (buildings, parking areas, lawns, gravel pits). Contiguous forest areas may have various age classes of forest cover and, in fact, may be composed of other habitat types such as wetlands or old meadows that are part of the overall contiguous habitat complex. Ideally, these areas are connected with other similar areas so that the animals that use them can move freely to other forested areas and habitats. It is important to keep in mind that there is no minimum or maximum number of acres to define contiguous habitat in all cases throughout the state. Rather, it is important to consider the size of the contiguous forest habitat and associated species of plants and animals within the context of the level of fragmentation in the region/area. In addition, the configuration of the habitat is also an important consideration for identifying contiguous forests. For instance, an area of forest habitat that is highly irregular in shape, with a high degree of forest edge may be less functional for some species than forest habitat of the same acreage with a regular shape. 

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Core Forests in Vermont

The core forest data layer was made by UVM's Spatial Analysis Lab in 1992. It looks at all the forest in VT, and buffers it a 100m from all human development (including roads, houses etc.) This data is extremely useful when looking for opportunities for connectivity. Data can be obtained through VCGI.

Importance  

                Contiguous forest habitat supports native plants and animals, including those species like bobcats and black bears that require large areas to survive. Such habitat, together with other important habitats such as wetlands, also supports natural ecological processes such as predator/prey interactions and natural disturbance. It also serves to buffer species against the negative consequences of fragmentation. For instance, many of Vermont 's native migratory songbirds, including the hermit thrush ( Vermont 's state bird), generally require larger patches of relatively unfragmented forest habitat to ensure successful reproduction. In the absence of such habitat, these birds are greatly affected by increased rates of nest predation from raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and chipmunks as well as nest parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds. Many of the native migratory songbird populations are now in decline due, in part, to the loss of contiguous forest habitat, especially in southern New England . 

        In summary, contiguous forest habitat is important because it:

         supports the biological requirements of many plants and animals;

         supports viable populations of wide-ranging animals by allowing access to important, feeding habitat, reproduction, and genetic exchange;

         serves as habitat for source populations of dispersing animals for recolonization of nearby habitats that may have lost their original populations of those species;

         supports public access to and appreciation of Vermont 's forested landscape;

         provides forest management opportunities for sustainable extraction of forest products;

         provides forest management opportunities to yield a mixture of young, intermediate, and older forest habitat;

         helps maintain air and water quality; and

         provides important opportunities for education and research of forest ecosystems. 

                To avoid the consequences of fragmentation and to account for the habitat requirements of wide ranging and forest interior species, large contiguous areas of forested habitat should be identified and conserved, keeping in mind that conservation and stewardship take many forms (see strategies). The size of the habitat necessary will depend on the conservation needs and goals of an area and the species that are being addressed. However, the general rule of thumb, given the significant risks of continued fragmentation of forest habitat due to development, is 'the bigger the better.' All else being equal, the conservation benefits of conserving parcels of land that are greater than 500 acres, for instance, typically will outweigh the conservation benefits of multiple small parcels of conserved land that may or may not be connected. Importantly, the fostering and promotion of enterprises such as sustainable forestry products effectively addresses the conservation and stewardship of this level of wildlife. 

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Conservation Goals

Below are some examples of conservation and stewardship goals that a town or other planning group might adopt: 

1.        Conserve and provide stewardship for existing relatively large patches of contiguous forest within the town or area of interest. 

2.        Conserve and provide stewardship for at least two patches of contiguous forest habitat totaling a minimum of 1,000 acres within the town. (Note that the figure 1,000 acres is not fixed, but is used here to convey the idea that establishing some sort of numerical target may be useful in directing conservation efforts and evaluating the extent to which a community has realized its goals at some point in the future.) 

3.        Ensure the maintenance and conservation of existing contiguous forest habitat and avoid subdivision and parcelization of that habitat. 

4.        Ensure the viability of working lands associated with a sustainable forest products economy due to their significant contribution to this and other fish, wildlife, and natural heritage elements. 

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Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources   

See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

  • University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab: The University of Vermont has developed a GIS data layer that identifies contiguous forest habitat. This layer depicts those areas in Vermont that are at least 100 meters (330 feet) distant from a zone of human disturbance. Human disturbance zones are defined as developed, industrial, or residential areas, agricultural openings, and roads.

  • Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department: The Department can provide some technical assistance in identifying contiguous forest.

  • Vermont Center for Geographic Information: Data layers for use with ArcView GIS software can be downloaded from the VCGI website. Data layers that are useful for locating contiguous forest include roads, surface waters, land cover, and UVM's contiguous forest layer.

  • Regional Planning Commission:  These groups can provide information on land ownership, which is helpful in identifying large parcels that may continue to provide contiguous habitat. Most towns also have paper and/or digital tax maps available at the town offices. 

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Interpreting the Information 

Because contiguous forest is defined by a lack of roads and development, it can be identified on topographic maps, aerial photos, and orthophotos. It is easy to identify areas of forest habitat that are not currently fragmented by identifying roads, developed land, agricultural land, and vegetative cover on the topographic or ortho/aerial photograph base layers. The following criteria are useful for evaluating and prioritizing forest habitats:

         Size: Larger areas may be more ecologically valuable or provide greater benefits to the civic community in terms of providing opportunities to access, use, and enjoy the benefits of the land.

         Condition: Forests that have diverse habitat types within them normally have a greater variety of plant and animal species.

         Landscape Context: Forested areas that are near other forest patches and are well buffered from fragmenting features like roads, development, or agricultural land function better as wildlife habitat for many species, especially those requiring interior forest conditions. 

                The size of contiguous forest habitat necessary to represent Vermont 's conservation interests and values will vary by region. Biophysical regions provide a useful framework for understanding the minimum size of contiguous forest habitat necessary to meet a town or region's conservation needs. For instance, areas in the Champlain Valley biophysical region, such as Chittenden County , may focus on conserving relatively small forested areas - say 50 acres or more - while areas in Washington County in the Northern Green Mountain biophysical region may focus on larger areas, with a minimum of 200 acres or more. 

        Once an inventory of contiguous forest habitat is complete, it is useful to compare those areas to the location of conserved lands, significant habitats, habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, natural communities, and other relevant information.  

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Conservation Strategies

Once information has been gathered on the contiguous forest areas in your town or area of interest, and preferably in surrounding areas as well, you can develop specific conservation strategies to help achieve your goals. Examples of strategies for each goal are presented below.   

1. Goal: Conserve and provide stewardship of existing relatively large patches of contiguous forest habitat within the town or area of interest.  

Strategies:  

        a. Identify patches of contiguous forest, those that are relatively large, in good condition (e.g., relatively unfragmented or undeveloped), and preferably with connections to other patches of contiguous forest. There are different ways to conserve land. For example, seek conservation easements on those areas that would either allow for sustainable forestry or limit or prevent development. (See Chapter 7 for details on local land acquisition funds and conservation easements.) In addition, one could seek to establish cooperative relationships with the landowners to educate them about the conservation value of their lands and promote sustainable forest management. For example, enrolling in Vermont 's current use program (technically called the Agricultural and Managed Forests Land Use Value Program) helps forest owners reduce the tax burden of owning forest lands while encouraging them to sustainably manage their forests. Other programs, such as Vermont Family Forests and Smart Wood Certification, can also help foster sustainable forestry while conserving fish and wildlife resources. 

        b. Include a map of contiguous forest patches in the town plan and include language stressing the importance of contiguous forest in conserving the town's natural heritage. Sample Language: Contiguous forest habitat provides a significant contribution to the local community's interests in its natural heritage, identity, and working landscape. These lands represent much of what makes life in this area unique and enjoyable. These lands provide a myriad of ecological functions for fish, wildlife, plants, and all the natural processes that sustain them. Further, they provide extremely valuable connections for people to enjoy and appreciate the land and its abundant resources. For these reasons, contiguous forests will be supported by sustainable working lands, for the myriad contributions to our natural and cultural heritage, and for maintaining options and choices for future generations of the community. To this end, we will work to inform landowners of these values and offer assistance for any conservation actions that are in keeping with the local community's conservation interests.  

        c. Establish a land acquisition fund and accompanying land conservation plan that identifies important lands in the community for potential permanent conservation. This creates the ability to target land acquisitions to make effective and efficient use of an acquisition fund. Priority areas may be large land holdings that support a sustainable forest products economy, that support rare species and related habitat(s), or support multiple natural heritage elements. This is an important component for conserving a community's interests in their natural heritage because it provides them with a guarantee that they will have access to sufficient areas of land for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, photography, and other compatible activities.   

        d. Develop a system for the transfer of development rights (TDR) that allows a greater density of development in sensible areas such as village centers and defined growth centers, conserves the rural lands of a community, and allows for an equitable sharing of investments in both the community's interests in development and in conservation. This is explained further in Tools. 

        e. Establish a conservation district where only low impact, low-density development and land uses can occur. All uses must be found to be compatible with the objectives of the conservation district. Establish criteria such as permitting uses that do not fragment the area or that do not require extensive clearing of vegetation. Diversify conservation districts within a town or area of interest to ensure that lands and resources at multiple elevations are included, rather than just high-elevation lands. Many of the lower elevation areas in Vermont support the greatest biological diversity and opportunities for public enjoyment. And, as discussed in earlier sections of these pages, these areas are currently grossly underrepresented by conserved lands.   

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 2. Goal: Conserve and provide stewardship for at least two patches of contiguous forest habitat totaling a minimum of 1,000 acres within the town or area of interest. This figure is not set in stone, but will vary depending on location in the state and landscape conditions within the area of interest. Configuration of the habitat patches is also an important consideration as mentioned above.    

Strategies: 

        a. After identifying all the patches of contiguous forest in town (or area of interest), choose two parcels that meet a predetermined target size (500 acres, for example),2 or choose some reasonable combination of several large patches that achieves this goal. These parcels should be in good condition (see 'condition' as defined on page 41) and have the best landscape context. Seek conservation easements in these areas. Focus education and cooperative landowner relations on these parcels to encourage private ownership that supports good forest stewardship of these parcels. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation offers assistance to private landowners interested in conducting sustainable forest management. 

        b. Same as strategy 1c above; acquire land and offer education and assistance to private landowners. 

        c. Establish an impact fee program that requires developers to pay a fee toward the protection or restoration of town-owned open space lands, forests, parks, or recreation areas. (See Tools  for details.)   

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3. Goal: Ensure the conservation and stewardship of existing contiguous forest habitat and avoid subdivision and parcelization of that habitat.  

Strategies: 

        a. Establish language in the town plan that supports and promotes a sustainable local and regional forest products economy. Sample Language: The community recognizes the value of working lands to the regional forest products economy and to the local and regional community's ability to conserve and provide stewardship for its natural heritage of fish, wildlife, plants, ecological systems, and the myriad public values therein. Therefore, the town will explore all reasonable and feasible opportunities to support and promote those lands that are greater than 25 acres and meet any of the following criteria - (i) enrolled in the Vermont current use program; (ii) owned by persons willing to consider the sale and application of a conservation easement; (iii) are being managed in accordance with a forest management plan that has been reviewed and approved by a professional forester, wildlife biologist, or other appropriate and related professional; or (iv) owned by persons willing to consider other non-regulatory mechanisms that promote sustainable forest management or seek to otherwise conserve the lands.  

        b. Create zoning ordinances that promote cluster development and prevent subdivision in the interior of large forested areas. This may be accomplished in several ways as explained in more detail in Tools. For instance, a town could establish a conservation district where zoning would prohibit certain forms of development that would compromise the natural heritage values of the town. A conservation district should be designed not only for areas of high elevation where aesthetics are a concern and where steep slopes and poor soil restrict development, but it should also include those areas where large areas of land remain undeveloped and where a diversity of habitats and natural heritage elements occur together. 

        Another approach is to establish zoning bylaws that create incentives for development in existing town and village centers. Finally, though not widely used yet in Vermont , an effective method of conserving contiguous forest is to establish a process/system for transferable development rights (TRDs). (See Tools.) 

        c. Incorporate language in the town plan to encourage landowners who are eligible to enroll in the State of Vermont 's current use program (information on this program can be obtained by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation or the Vermont Department of Taxes). This program provides tax incentives for qualifying landowners who enroll in the program and agree not to develop their forest lands and to manage them in accordance with a forest management plan developed in cooperation with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. 

        d. To encourage cluster development and prevent the subdivision of large forested areas, allow for planned unit developments (PUDs). Require that PUD designs be used when developing in contiguous forest patches, and require or provide incentives (e.g., density bonuses) for developments to cluster structures next to existing infrastructure (e.g., roads or power lines). Require land designated as 'common land' in the PRD/PUD to have a conservation easement that ensures the proper management and uses of the land that are compatible with the Conservation Goals and interests of the habitat. An easement can include conditions that protect and manage for certain natural heritage elements, such as wetlands or mast stands. (See Tools for details.) The easements could also ensure long-term public use of those lands. 

        e. Same as '1c' above. The conservation district or select forest patches can be designated as sending areas3 in a TDR program (see '1d' above and see Tools for details). 

        f. Develop a landowner stewardship program to encourage conservation and sustainable management of contiguous forest lands. Educate landowners about COVERTS4 (Woodlands for Wildlife), the state's current use program, and other wildlife habitat and forest management programs and techniques. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colchester , Vermont , offers several assistance and incentive programs to private landowners interested in land and habitat conservation. See Resources for contact information for all of these programs. 

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4. Goal: Ensure the viability of working lands associated with a sustainable forest products economy due to their significant contribution to this and other fish, wildlife, and natural heritage elements.  

Strategies: 

        a. Identify patches of contiguous forest, those that are relatively large, in good condition (e.g., relatively unfragmented or undeveloped), and preferably with connections to other patches of contiguous forest. There are different ways to conserve contiguous forest. For example, seek conservation easements on those areas that would either allow for sustainable forestry or limit or prevent development. In addition, one could seek to establish cooperative relationships with the landowners to educate them about the conservation value of their lands and promote sustainable forest management. For example, enrolling in Vermont 's current use program (technically called the Agricultural and Managed Forests Land Use Value Program) helps forest owners reduce the tax burden of owning forest lands while encouraging them to sustainably manage their forests. Other programs, such as Vermont Family Forests and Smart Wood Certification, can also help foster sustainable forestry while conserving fish and wildlife resources.  

        b. Include a map of contiguous forest patches in the town plan and include language stressing the importance of contiguous forest in conserving the town's natural heritage. Sample Language: Contiguous forest habitat provides a significant contribution to the local community's interests in its natural heritage, identity, and working landscape. These lands represent much of what makes life in this area unique and enjoyable. These lands provide a myriad of ecological functions for fish, wildlife, plants, and all the natural processes that sustain them. Further, they provide extremely valuable connections for people to enjoy and appreciate the land and its abundant resources. For these reasons, contiguous forests will be supported by sustainable working lands, for the myriad contributions to our natural and cultural heritage, and for maintaining options and choices for future generations of the community. To this end, we will work to inform landowners of these values and offer assistance for any conservation actions that are in keeping with the local community's conservation interests.  

        c. Establish a land acquisition fund and accompanying land conservation plan that identifies important lands in the community for potential permanent conservation. (See Tools  for details on local land acquisition funds and conservation easements.) This creates the ability to target land acquisitions to make effective and efficient use of an acquisition fund. Priority areas may be large land holdings that support a sustainable forest products economy, that support rare species and related habitat(s), or support multiple natural heritage elements. This is an important component for conserving a community's interests in their natural heritage because it provides them with a guarantee that they will have access to sufficient areas of land for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, photography, and other compatible activities. 

        d. After identifying all the patches of contiguous forest in town (or area of interest), choose two parcels that meet a predetermined target size (500 acres, for example),5 or choose some reasonable combination of several large patches that achieves this goal. These parcels should be in good condition (see 'condition' as defined on page 41) and have the best landscape context. Seek conservation easements in these areas. Focus education and cooperative landowner relations on these parcels to encourage private ownership that supports good forest stewardship of these parcels. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation offers assistance to private landowners interested in conducting sustainable forest management. 

        e. Establish language in the town plan that supports and promotes a sustainable local and regional forest products economy. Sample Language: The community recognizes the value of working lands to the regional forest products economy and to the local and regional community's ability to conserve and provide stewardship for its natural heritage of fish, wildlife, plants, ecological systems, and the myriad public values therein. Therefore, the town will explore all reasonable and feasible opportunities to support and promote those lands that are greater than 25 acres and meet any of the following criteria - (i) enrolled in the Vermont current use program; (ii) owned by persons willing to consider the sale and application of a conservation easement; (iii) are being managed in accordance with a forest management plan that has been reviewed and approved by a professional forester, wildlife biologist, or other appropriate and related professional; or (iv) owned by persons willing to consider other non-regulatory mechanisms that promote sustainable forest management or seek to otherwise conserve the lands.  

        f. Incorporate language in the town plan to encourage landowners who are eligible to enroll in the State of Vermont 's current use program, information on this program can be obtained by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation or the Vermont Department of Taxes. This program provides tax incentives for qualifying landowners who enroll in the program and agree not to develop their forest lands and to manage them in accordance with a forest management plan developed in cooperation with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. 

        g. Develop a landowner stewardship program to encourage conservation and sustainable management of contiguous forest lands. Educate landowners about COVERTS (Woodlands for Wildlife), the state's current use program, and other wildlife habitat and forest management programs and techniques. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colchester , Vermont , offers several assistance and incentive programs to private landowners interested in land and habitat conservation. See Appendix for contact information for these programs.   

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