Before humans ever set foot in the area we now call the Mad River Valley, plants called this place home. In fact, trees have been here almost as long as the first sediments of Vermont’s deep bedrock were laid down in an ancient, shallow sea. Of course, there have been glacial advances that scoured rock, soil and trees from The Valley, but each time the forests returned. A very similar story unfolded from the heyday of sheep farming in 19th-century Vermont to today’s farm and forest landscape. The state as a whole went from less than 20 percent forest cover to nearly 80 percent at the turn of the new millennium. The returning forests have brought with them the annual golden- and red-hued spectacle of nature we’re now enjoying. But the reforestation trend seems to be swinging back in the other direction, at least for our Valley community. Between 2001 and 2011, 450 acres of forest cover in the Mad River Valley became meadow or developed instead.
Most of the land in the Mad River Valley is owned by private individuals and families. Written in this land is the history of human settlement in The Valley, from indigenous hunting and fishing grounds, to upland hill farms, to logging camps and mills, to village centers, riverside farms and scattered orchards. Today, though, we have grown to value all that the forests offer. We enjoy watching wildlife wander through the trees and relish in the fact that bear and butterfly call this place home. We enjoy hiking and riding our bikes among falling leaves, skiing through snowcapped firs, and swimming in the cool, clear waters of the Mad River on a hot summer day. The forests, waters and communities of the Mad River Valley give this place the distinct character that residents and visitors have grown to love. It takes good neighbors and thoughtful stewardship to make life here as good as it is.
Friends of the Mad River has worked for 30 years with Valley neighbors to steward healthy land, clean water and a vibrant community. In the face of a changing climate this work is more pressing now than ever. Over the last two years as part of the Storm Smart program, Friends of the Mad River has helped homeowners find ways to turn their properties into a sponge – to slow down, spread out and sink in runoff.
PLANT A TREE
A small tree clearing in the uplands can lead to more runoff downhill. More runoff can mean more erosion, damage to private and town roads, dirty swim holes and costly repairs that we all pay for. These same clearings can lead to forest fragmentation. As forest blocks shrink, habitat becomes poorer and wildlife finds it difficult to move freely. There are over 400 miles of roads in The Valley, a third of them private, and many acres of mown lawns that increase runoff and cut into forestland. Installing rain gardens, replacing undersized culverts, and repairing and reshaping roads are just a few of the tools used to handle stormwater and build resilience into our community.
But perhaps the most effective tool is a tree.
Around the world people are looking for ways to tackle climate change – how to slow it down, lessen its impact and repair the natural systems that regulate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the same way that small changes on the land can add up to big problems, small actions we each take can also add up to big solutions. Research out of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich suggests that mass tree planting might be the single greatest tool in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
TURN UNUSED LAWNS TO FORESTS
Our Mad River Valley lawns and bare streambanks present opportunities. Turning unused portions of lawn back into forests can, as just one example, help the nearly two-thirds of America’s birds that the National Audubon Society announced in October may become extinct due to climate change. And, reestablishing native plant buffers along streams can play a vital role in protecting water quality and biodiversity whether you are high up on the banks of a mountain stream or tucked down on the valley floor.
Friends of the Mad River hopes to connect with people in the Mad River watershed to plant native trees and shrubs – to fill in lawns or buffer streams. If you are interested in planting trees on your property, Friends of the Mad River can help. We have a long history of hands-on practice with planting trees, we can help find out which trees will thrive on your property, and we have some grant funds to support these projects.
There are big challenges in the world and planting a tree (or even a few thousand) in our small valley might seem like a drop in the bucket. But leadership requires action and humility; it often means doing small things over and over again with the likelihood that we may not directly see the benefits. As we come together to support each other as neighbors, as we foster resilience and protect the place we love, we can turn the single drop into many bucketsful. If you are interested in restoring a riparian buffer, increasing forest cover or just having less lawn to mow reach out to learn more at
Miller is the executive director of Friends of the Mad River and Shadis handles the group’s Storm Smart program.