Charlie Hancock, The Big Picture
On this clear winter day, Charlie Hancock has just come in from doing inventory for a forest management plan he is currently working on. “I’ve always loved being outside,” he says. “And I’ve always loved Vermont.”
Hancock grew up south of Boston, by the ocean, but he prefers the mountains and forests of the northeast. After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont’s Environmental Studies program, specializing in forestry, Hancock asked himself: “How can I design my life so that I spend most of my time playing in the woods?” The answer came in the form of consulting work for large, industrial timber companies, pursing his interest in forest management at a landscape scale.
Six years ago, just when he was about to go back to school to study ecological planning, Hancock got a call from a favorite mentor, Nancy Patch, asking if he’d like to buy her forestry consulting company in Franklin County. “I said yes.”
This work was different—a different scale—his new clients were private, non-industrial owners and non-profits. “They have very diverse objectives,” Hancock reports. “Some are interested in timber, others habitat protection, recreation or forest aesthetics.” What do they have in common? “They all love forests. And they’re all in it for the long haul.”
Every piece of land is unique. For each new client Hancock first does an inventory of the woods, checks forest health, and considers the potential to improve wildlife habitat and connectivity.
What’s the biggest problem he sees? “Fragmentation. Smaller and smaller parcels with multiple owners makes it harder to manage the forest. Boundaries are artificially created, serving human management needs, and have little or nothing to do with the needs of the wildlife living here.”
Information on wildlife breeding habitats, range, migratory routes, and food sources are critical to Hancock’s work and to the recommendations he makes to clients. Hancock is also concerned about the wood products economy—in particular our increasing tendency to ship our wood to Canada, where it is processed and sold back to us. “This is not sustainable,” Hancock says. “It’s impossible for local sawmills to compete.”
The best part of Hancock’s job, he reports, is educating people about their land, opening their eyes to what’s there. “You should see their faces when I show them a bobcat track, or woodcock habitat. Most people are very concerned and interested when I show them critical habitat linkages on their property. They express an immediate commitment to protecting those linkages. They want to know what they can do to help gather information and how they can affect the planning process.”
Once local planning and conservation committees, often with SCI support, have established habitat linkages, those of us involved in the effort to fight forest fragmentation look at what kinds of regulatory tools can be used to influence planning and conservation efforts. As bylaws and zoning regulations come up for review, we can address linkage-related issues. Sometimes it’s just a question of adding language! Sometimes we lobby to increase the size of protected areas. Sometimes we argue for density-based zoning to reduce fragmentation. Sometimes landowners form cooperatives to protect linkages.
Conservationists also look at physical solutions to fragmentation—like land cover, culverts, paths of least resistance for wildlife. The more data we have, the better. But it all starts with that look in their eyes when they understand what they’ve got. When they realize that the word ‘community’ includes the soil, the trees, and the wildlife. That’s when they start to care.”