Vermont's Non-Timber Forest Products

(Image credit: Wikipedia)
by Kameron Decker Harris and Claire McKown

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Past, Present and Future
  3. What is to be done?


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Across the world people rely on the natural environment around them for many things: food, medicine, crafts, shelter, etc. Although in the Western world we are quickly forgetting the importance of the natural resources that nature provides us with, many people still rely on nature for their basic necessities. Non-timber forest products are gathered all over the world, both to serve the individual, and to sell on a larger market. People from all walks of life gather NTFPs, from those just picking some berries on a hike for a snack to people who rely almost solely on these products for their food, medicine, or livelihood.

Much can be learned from these gatherers, because it is a great way to get closer to nature. They can teach us about sustainability and the preservation of the plants they work with. Even when gatherers use NTFPs to supply or supplement their income, thay are usually acutely aware of how much they can gather before they destroy a certain plant or even ecosystem. Thus, they are willing to sacrifice money in order to remain responsible stewards of the land. They know they have to treat nature well if they want to get the greatest benefits from it.

NTFPs are important for both their economic and cultural values. Because NTFPs are taken from nature itself, gathering can prove to be a great way to keep costs at bay because there is no need to pay the extra costs that come with getting the same product from a store. Also, gathering has important cultural value because it allows us to get back to our roots and live a simpler lifestyle, something people have largely forgotten in America.

Especially in rural areas where there is not so much commercial and market activity, NTFPs play an important role. People may use NTFPs because there is no other way for them to get comparable products, or it is the easiest and most cost-effective way (Emery). Much much of the knowledge of gathering has been lost. Prepackaged consumer goods have severed our direct connection to natural products; people no longer need these skills. The difference in knowledge from one generation to the next is alarming in how much has been lost because of the change in lifestyle. It is also increasingly difficult to find areas in which to gather (Emery). Higher population density brought different concepts of private property—people do not want strangers wandering through their woods, and because so much land is private property nowadays, it is hard to find accessible areas.

But Vermont has preserved some of the idea of the commons, where people recognize the value of common land left in its natural state for everyone. Vermonters carry with them unique knowledge of the natural world and humanity's place within it. This is evident in how they have preserved the landscape and forests of the state, making it a beautiful and special place to live. The scope of traditional knowledge is weakening, but is still actively used in rural areas.

Past, Present, and Future

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Before the arrival of Europeans, Vermont was blanketed with pristine old-growth forests dominated by American chestnut and oak. American chestnuts produced great quantities of nutritious chestnuts and oaks acorns. The wood is also very rot-resistant. The Native Americans' lives revolved around these titans of the forest which were able to support greater diversity than the forests of today (Brigham). In the early 1900's, a blight arrived from Asia to which the American chestnut had no resistance. After the 1960's, only a few trees had survived, and even fewer still reproduced. Ecosystems drastically changed.

By the time the chestnuts started dying, forests had already degraded from the primeval state. Timber is an important Vermont commodity. After felling the trees in an area, people set up farms, and when fertile land in the valleys was taken, Vermonters started felling trees on hillsides and mountains and starting farms there. At the height of deforestation, only 20% of the land was forested, but changes were made to make the state 80% forested today. The hill-farms could not bring many profits, and most were abandoned for the promises in industrializing cities and towns. In place of the old-growth hardwoods, enormous white pines sprung up fast leading to another timber boom. When loggers cut out the white pine, they left the hardwoods which took over and fill our state today.

These first European-descended Vermonters had to be familiar with the land. They were homesteaders, living outside the comforts and conveniences of a town. They had to be resourceful, and knowing local plants was part of this. They used plants for food and medicine. The state's first natural historian, Zadock Thompson, does not even go into all of the medicinal plants from old Vermont, saying there are just too many. Some of this early knowledge of Vermont plantlife has been passed down and is still available. A good example of how this knowledge has been passed down is Dick Brigham, who grew up in a very different Vermont than that of today. He has lived all his life in small town in the South of the state. As a young man, he spent most of his time in the woods both hunting game, and learning about and using plants. At that time Vermont was almost entirely rural, farming villages and most people knew about plants. Brigham has tried to pass on the gathering tradition, and is always willing to take young people out to the woods.

Vermont today has many conservationists who work to preserve knowledge of the land. Land trusts work to keep farmland active and prevent sprawling development. There is a strong awareness of the benefits of sustainable and organic agriculture. People are encouraged to buy local, keeping money in the local economy, reducing pollution from transport, and to use fresh food, as opposed to packaged foods. There is an active and diverse gatherer community here. Some folks still make their living gathering from and teaching about the land. Most modern gatherers collect NTFPs because it is fun and educational activity; they are teachers, farmers, workers, and students, young and old. Much of the knowledge of NTFPs rests in the community, and it is up to them to preserve it.

Karen Miller Lane is an example of someone who is trying to make her own difference in the world today. She is a naturopathic doctor who specializes in female medicine, but treats all sorts of different patients. In her work, she uses many different plants, and while she does not gather her own herbs and medicinal, she is aware of the status of the plant she is using and believes strongly in the ethical, or sustainable, use of plants. Combining Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic medicine, Karen uses a wide variety of herbs in her practice. She believes that we must understand plants on many levels, not just the chemical properties of the plant, but where it comes from, its effect on the body, as well as its spiritual properties. “Plants offer us, ultimately, a lot of answers to our health concerns,” but if we ignore these plants, we will never find these answers. While pharmacology is good and has saved many people, it still limits us, and some sort of balance between the two should be met, similar to Barbara Raab's “bridge.” Plants should remain a critical part of all of our lives, but because we are always on the lookout for that one miracle chemical that will cure all of our problems, we loose sight of the natural solutions right in front of us. 

Many people can improve their health with plants alone and do not need drugs. Modern medicine does not look at prevention at all—it can treat the disease, but the patient must first have a disease to be treated. With Karen’s profession as a naturopathic doctor, a lot of what she deals with is prevention of disease and sustaining healthy habits through diet and lifestyle. Lately, there have been more and more people turning to alternative medicines for treatment. This is for a number of reasons: bad experiences in hospitals, bad side effects from pharmacological medicines, they just do not feel healthy, and most importantly, they are not being heard by their MDs. The thing Karen’s patients were most shocked with when she first started practicing is that she listened to them. For in order to truly be able to help a person, knowing their background and history is important: it is this kind of holistic health care that people are looking for now. It is no mystery why millions of dollars are being spent on alternative medicines, and even though some people do not agree with what Karen does saying there is no science in her practice, this kind of holistic health care has been attracting patients, and those patients have been seeing results. This is not to say that modern medicine is bad—it is a very necessary part of our society—but a balance of the two in our society would make for a much healthier population.

Alternative medicine that treats the whole instead of just the disease is not going away: the degree to which it will be accepted in our society is another matter. This kind of treatment is still not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, which limits the amount of people who are able to receive this kind of treatment. There are some programs that support holistic health treatment, such as Women First, but these sorts of programs only allow very specific treatments—Women First only allows certain treatments dealing with female issues. With more people using alternative medicines, our society will become more aware of the importance of plants in their daily lives and how they can help the body, and hopefully at the same time, teach people about the importance of sustainability in nature.

Moving beyond the personal side of our plant-human relationship, we need to keep conservation and protection of our plant and forest resources a priority. Development is one threat. Often heralded as a bringer of economic growth, it is quickly changing the character of the landscape. Also: global warming will most certainly affect the nature of Vermont forests and forest industry. The temperature spikes predicted by most models will kill off the maple trees and by association the sugar harvest, a big part of the community and history. They could also adversely affect other plants and fungi, or introduce new competitors. We especially need to preserve and expand the forests of Vermont to safeguard NTFPs. Additionally, we need people to keep passing down their knowledge to the next generations.

What is to be done?

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Although Vermonters are more conscious of their environmental impact, the state is in no way immune to degradation. There is still no government sponsored sustainability program, and there are many improvements that can be made in terms of sustainable practices (Brigham, Emery). Recently, the Farmer's Protection Act, drafted to promote agriculture and anticipate possible negative effects of genetically modified organisms, was not passed in legislature. Thankfully, Vermont is still home to many forests and we benefit from that: the flora here is five times more diverse than any other area in New England due to both the climate and the overall attitude of this state, and additionally, the state has been largely reforested over the years (Johnson 108).

Some attempts to promote sustainability on a statewide level have wanted to eradicate gathering as a whole. At Indian Brook Reservoir in Essex, gathering is seen as threatening forest plants and is forbidden, even though more often than not it is done sustainably (Emery). This same odd perspective is, sadly, common statewide. What authorities are failing to see is that gathering is not usually for markets, it is a widespread activity that many people rely on for their food, medicine, and just fun. It is only when economic markets come into play that the harvesting of wild plants really has any effect on populations as shown with fiddleheads in Vermont (Brigham, Emery). Certain companies who are gathering fiddleheads for large-scale commercial markets are employing careless gathering processes where the roots are torn up, fiddlehead populations are being killed off (Emery). People also associate gathering with ginseng, which has been over-gathered to the point that it is rare.

This is not the right approach to take to creating a truly sustainable environment. Gathering is important in understanding nature and how vital its resources are to humans. While over-harvesting is a serious problem and should be addressed, gathering is not something that needs to be eradicated.

Vermont’s strong bond with the commons is ideal for promoting the importance of sustainable collecting and harvesting of plants. However, much of the knowledge of this sort of lifestyle lies in the older generations who are slowly dying off. It is important to preserve their knowledge if we ever hope to create a more sustainable lifestyle, perhaps by recovering knowledge from the past (Emery).

Brigham asked us to look at the natural community as a watershed—strictly meaning “the limit of a river” but referring, in this case, to the limit of human encroachment on natural land before disaster. The limit of our economies, our populations, our agriculture, our industry, all that civilization entails. We conform to these limits or else be left with “a desert with no plants” (Brigham). We have no choice, according to Brigham, but to change our ways if we wish to save humanity. The way to prevent this devastation of our world is to bring the environment and people together, and just by putting limits on our everyday little habits—turning the water off while brushing one’s teeth—could have a huge impact if everyone worked together (Brigham).

Vermonters already have a more sustainable lifestyle than people in the rest of the United States. By educating each other about how to take care of the earth, by gathering and harvesting safely, implementing environmental policies, and making changes in our day-to-day lives, we can all help to make a sustainable human civilization.

Want to learn more? Continue to the plant profiles!

Works Cited