Middlebury to prepare plan for its public forests

MIDDLEBURY — A group of area mountain biking enthusiasts, municipal officials and environmentalists are seeking input for a comprehensive recreation and stewardship plan for a large swath of Middlebury’s publicly owned forestland.
At issue are the Battell Woods, Chipman Hill, and D. M. Means Memorial Woods, which together comprise a combined total of around 264 acres of forested land bequeathed to Middlebury residents generations ago. The land’s use has been governed by legal covenants and overseen by volunteer trustees. In general, Middlebury residents and their guests have used it for passive recreation, including hiking, sightseeing and biking. Members of a revitalized Addison County Biking Club (ACBC) have had particular fun peddling through the rustic, bumpy trails that spider-web portions of the lush, wondrous acreage.
Ashar Nelson is a member of the ACBC, he has enjoyed the convenience of pedaling from his downtown workplace to the public woods for occasional lunchtime workouts. More than 30 fellow bike club members have also grown to appreciate the woods and related trails.
“The proximity (of the trails) to the downtown is a plus,” Nelson said on Thursday.
“The trails are there, and they are a draw.”
Many of those trails have been blazed by folks through the years. Some of the trails are well-worn and popular, while others don’t see much traffic. Many weren’t sanctioned at the time by Battell and Means Woods trustees, though Nelson said they have since been formally recognized by those overseers. Nelson and other devotees of the public woods have often thought of the benefits of a comprehensive plan to formally recognize and nurture the informal recreational opportunities taking place there.
Their notion inched closer to reality earlier last year, when the Vermont Town Forest Recreation Planning Community Assistance Program invited communities to apply for up to $10,000 in assistance to develop town forest recreation and stewardship action plans.
Nelson and fellow ACBC member Carl Robinson helped organize a local steering committee that applied for one of the $10,000 assistance grants. Much to their delight, Middlebury was one of 10 grant winners, setting up a public process that could lead to completion of a Middlebury public forest plan by late this summer. An important first step in the process will be a “Battell Woods & Chipman Hill Public Visioning Workshop and Open House,” set for Monday, Jan. 15, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the large conference room of the Middlebury municipal building at 77 Main St.
Attendees will be asked to share their priorities for a plan that will address many aspects of the public woods and their upkeep, including:
•  How to improve the property use, signage, trail mapping, access, and users’ recreational experience.
•  How to manage potentially conflicting uses.
•  How to promote the forest as an educational resource.
•  How to manage for wildflowers and other wildlife habitat, as well as planning for possible invasive species.
•  How to promote the lands for increased public use and as an educational tool.
Middlebury’s steering committee includes representatives of the ACBC, the Battell Trust, the Means Woods Trust, Middlebury town staff, and the Middlebury Area Land Trust board.
Former Middlebury Selectwoman Cindy Hill is one of the two Means Woods trustees serving in the steering committee. She’s eager to hear local residents’ views on how their public woods could be more fully and effectively used.
“There’s so much potential,” she said of the property, adding “it’s so unique to have a woodland park so close to the downtown community.”
She also hopes the planning process and final report will lead to more recognition for the families who donated the property so many years ago.
The $10,000 grant requires an in-kind match of volunteer hours, such as public education and community engagement. To be eligible for assistance, applying communities were required to have, or to soon acquire, a publicly owned parcel of land suitable for a town forest. The selection committee also looked at each town’s long-term stewardship goals, conservation status and other community planning efforts — such as its open space plan or recreational use planning.
Much of the value of the grant will come through professional staff to be supplied to Middlebury through SE Group, a consulting firm that specializes in community planning. That planning will include public visioning sessions, needs assessments, facilitated walks in the forests, and ultimately a plan that provides some actionable strategies to help the 10 communities move to implementation.
Nelson believes the resulting plan will be advisory in nature. The Middlebury selectboard and/or planning commission could choose to formally adopt some of the report’s specific recommendations for forest management. Organizers are happy all of the public forest stakeholders will have a seat at the planning table, which will be key in building a consensus on future plans for Middlebury’s incredible forest assets.
“This is the first step — getting a vision in place,” Nelson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
For more information about the Middlebury woods planning process, and how to provide input, log on to tinyurl.com/y8hqel2f.

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