A Starksboro Forest Transforms into a Learning Laboratory

Caitlin in winter on the land

A conversation with VLT forester, Caitlin Cusack

We asked VLT forester Caitlin Cusack about the 72-acre Jerusalem Skyline Forest, a special piece of woodland in Starksboro that she manages as part of VLT’s land restoration work.

What is the Jerusalem Skyline Forest and what is your role there?

It’s so many things. A learning laboratory, a working forest, and the scenic backdrop to Jerusalem Village— in short, a little piece of heaven. It was given to VLT by Elisabeth Hill and Constance Robert in 1986.

Over the past few years, we’ve decided to let this land teach us more about how forest management can help us tackle some pressing environmental issues. I just completed a timber harvest this past winter. We were able to use this as an opportunity to improve bird habitat, protect native species, and set the forest up to better handle climate change.

How are you preparing this forest for climate change?

Climate change brings disruption—higher temperatures, a longer growing season, stronger storms, and more drought. This means more invasive plants and pests and diseases and greater stress on trees. The impact is often borne by one species, like the ash trees threatened by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer; or trees of a certain age, when windstorms damage those with the biggest crowns.

As the adage goes, there is strength in diversity. By increasing the varieties and age-range of trees we will boost the ability of the woods to handle the more frequent and severe disturbances to come. Sugar maples make up half of the trees there, so in the recent harvest we cut some large openings to encourage species that need more sun like white ash, yellow birch, aspen, and paper birch.

recently logged and cleared area in the woods

We’re also testing “assisted migration.” In the future, Vermont’s woods will have more trees that are now commonly found to the south. I planted about 150 red oaks in the two largest openings created by the harvest. There’s no red oak currently on the land but it’s more common in southern climates and so will adapt better as temperatures warm.

I also left many large “legacy trees” that we’ll never cut. When they die, they will become part of the soil carbon pool. They are part of our legacy.

big old tree in summer woods

How are you managing ash with the threat of Emerald Ash Borer?

The threat to Vermont’s ash trees is scary. The latest research tells us to encourage a diversity of ages and sizes, help new ash trees get started, and treat small groups of seed trees with insecticide. We’re trying all these things. The State of Vermont is also releasing wasps that kill Emerald Ash Borer larvae and eggs.

Working with the US Forest Service, I will be treating 20 white ash with an insecticide to make sure they survive to provide seed for the future, when we hope there will be better answers. Since the survival of an entire species is at stake, it’s worth trying everything we can to prevent ash going the way of the chestnut.

How did you adjust your harvest plan to help birds?

The land is an Audubon Vermont ‘Foresters for the Birds’ demonstration site. They looked at the habitat and found that we needed more young trees and shrubs, and dead and dying trees for migratory songbirds, such as wood thrush, whose numbers are declining at alarming rates.

The majority of these birds nest and feed within 30 feet of the ground. The young trees that grow in new openings will provide great nesting and foraging habitat. I also asked our logger to leave the tops of trees he cut. It looks messy, but those tops and brush piles become great cover and nesting for many birds while the next generation of trees grows. The tops will also protect young trees from deer.

Learn more about how this land is being managed

Check out Caitlin's photo essay of her work at the Jerusalem Skyline Forest

What can people do to help Vermont’s woods?

Get outside, stay curious, learn more, and take action! Even if you have a small yard, you can make a difference by replacing invasive plants such as burning bush with pollinator-friendly native plants. UVM Extension offers an online course for landowners with less than 25 acres. For those with more land, just keeping forest as forest is a huge benefit. If you want to do more for climate change and wildlife, while growing healthy trees, reach out to your county forester, a consulting forester, a peer with VT Coverts or, if you identify as female, there is a new network forming called Women Owning Woodlands Vermont.

Can I visit this forest?

Like all VLT-owned woodland, it’s not posted; however, there isn’t easy access. I plan to host several walks so people can see and experience the land themselves. If you’re interested, email me, and I can give you directions or let you know of other opportunities to visit.