Scrag Forest trail

Thanks to a $256,650 grant awarded by the United States Forest Service (USFS) Community Forest Program, Waitsfield has a one-time opportunity to add 110 acres to its Scrag Town Forest by buying an adjacent parcel and permanently conserving with the Vermont Land Trust.

This 110-acre parcel, owned by Howard and Judy Saffan at the end of Bowen Road, is critical for improving public access, recreational opportunities and protecting intact forest habitat and high-elevation headwaters.

The 110-acre parcel is part of what was the Kisiel subdivision which created three lots along and at the end of Bowen Road. The entire parcel was purchased by the Saffans last year. They have combined lots one and two where they are building a home. The third lot is the one that the town will be purchasing.

Saffan Orthophoto VR

The town previously obtained limited access rights on the Saffan land through the 2008 Kisiel subdivision process, including a small parking area at the end of Bowen Road, a mile-long footpath to the town lands and a right of way for logging access by the town.

But these limited rights are inadequate for providing legal public access to Scrag Forest now and in the future, according to Liza Walker, Mad River Valley director of the Vermont Land Trust.

The Saffans have offered the town a time-bound opportunity to buy 110 acres, including a developable house site and surrounding acreage, for $450,000, a price below market value. The Saffans also have offered to contribute $25,000 toward building a new parking area and trailhead if the town acquires the land.

“Town ownership and conservation of the land would have many economic, ecological and community benefits. The additional land can provide municipal revenue over time from timber harvests, while helping to ensure the protection of fragile headwater streams critical to water quality and flood resilience downstream,” said Phil Huffman, chair of the Waitsfield Conservation Commission.

The federal grant that has been awarded is from the U.S. Forest Service Community Forest Program, a national competitive program. The Waitsfield project is one of eight projects that received funding this cycle. There were 21 applications from across the country.

The town and land trust also applied for a $150,000 Vermont Housing and Conservation Board grant for the project but did not receive funding in the cycle. The town and VLT will reapply and anticipate funding in the next cycle of up to $150,000. The town of Waitsfield will contribute $40,000 toward the project from its Restroom, Recreation and Conservation Reserve Fund.

Private fundraising will also be necessary to buy the property and support the town’s stewardship of it, including the creation of an enhanced trail network for public use.

“While several key pieces are falling into place, particularly the recent approval of USFS funding, this board will continue its careful and thorough assessment of this project as it develops. We are now at a point where we can bring Waitsfield voters, taxpayers and other members of the public up to date and hear feedback toward an outcome that is acceptable to the current landowners and in the public interest. We look forward to getting community input at a public meeting the Conservation Commission is planning to hold on July 20,” said Waitsfield Select Board members in a prepared statement.

The tax implications of removing the 110 acres from the tax rolls are insignificant, according to Huffman and Walker. The value of the entire Kisiel parcel is $760,000 and town taxes on the parcel come to approximately $1,700. The value of the home being built by the Saffans will more than cover the reduction from the 110 acres being removed from the parcel.

“The town is improving its tax situation by taking that land off the grant list and the Saffan property taxes will triple the town’s property tax yield. We think the associated benefits to the town will be an economic boon to the town. That’s what the recent economic studies have shown, that the value of recreation has long-term economic benefits,” Huffman explained.

“Having this recreation resource more readily accessible with expanded trail networks and signage will ensure that Waitsfield has the type of opportunities that Warren does with Sunset Ledge and Fayston has with Burnt Rock,” he added.

“If we don’t create this access, it means that we’ll be forever funneled through a mile-long 10-foot-wide path to get into the town forest,” he said.

The Scrag Forest, which currently encompasses 640 acres and a mile of the Northfield Mountain ridgeline, was first established in 1991 with a gift of 360 acres. Over the years, the forest expanded with one purchase of land and two additional donations to the town. With the addition of the Saffan parcel, Scrag Forest would include a total of 750 acres.

“The Scrag Town Forest is one of Waitsfield’s and the Mad River Valley’s invaluable natural assets and acquisition of the Saffan parcel is a ‘now or never’ opportunity for our community to secure a key addition to it that will have countless public benefits,” said Phil Huffman, chair of the Waitsfield Conservation Commission.

“This project will help keep the forested landscape along the Northfield Mountains intact for all of its scenic, ecological, recreational and economic contributions to the community,” Walker added.

For more than 25 years, hikers, hunters, birdwatchers, snowshoers, skiers and others have used the forest, enjoying its rugged terrain, scenic beauty, wildlife, streams, waterfalls and beaver pond. The town’s lands are landlocked and so all public access to them has been across neighboring private lands at the discretion of the landowners as well as the access created through the Kisiel subdivision.

The USFS Community Forest Program, created by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in the 2008 Farm Bill, provides federal matching grants so local governments and qualified nonprofit organizations can buy land for community-owned forests.

“Too often we see forestland subdivided, especially near resorts,” said Jim Barresi, director of the USFS Northeastern Area. “In Waitsfield it’s being reunited, purposely, for a larger town forest that offers better access for people to go out and enjoy. We love to see that and are thrilled to be part of it.”

In a joint comment, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter Welch remarked: “We congratulate the town of Waitsfield and the Vermont Land Trust for securing this timely funding toward expanding and improving access to the Town Forest. Vermont has done well in competing for grants through this program authored by Senator Leahy, which would see an increase in funding next year under the appropriations bill that advanced last week in the Senate.”‎

“I am pleased federal funds will help add more than 100 acres to the Waitsfield Scrag Forest, helping conserve roughly 750 acres of forest for future generations of Vermonters to enjoy,” said Senator Bernie Sanders.