Public gets peek at Tomasso property

By Shawn Cunningham
© Telegraph Publishing LLC

A load of visitors begins the trip up into the Tomasso family’s forest. Telegraph photo

On a warm and sunny Saturday, upwards of 80 Chester residents — and a few dogs — took the New England Forestry Foundation up on its offer to show the public some of the 1,800 acres it hopes to buy and preserve if it can raise $3.5 million by year’s end.

NEFF has proposed to buy land from the Tomasso family and turn it into a “community forest.” That means that the organization would manage the forest while keeping it open to visitors to use for recreation that may include snowmobiling, hunting and fishing.

The proposed Paul Tomasso Memorial Forest represents about five percent of Chester’s area. Courtesy NEFF

After some initial confusion on where to enter the property, visitors found miles of well-constructed road passing through forest and open fields. Some hiked their way and others rode bicycles but the majority got around on a tractor-towed wagon.

People representing a variety of Chester organizations were on hand. These included the Chester Conservation Committee, which creates and maintains hiking trails, the Chester Snowmobile Club, which manages the VAST trails in the town and Southern Vermont Astronomy Group, which supports science education and has proposed a public observatory on town property in the past.

According to a NEFF press release, the property features hardwood and softwood forests, large meadows, orchards, vernal pools and waterfalls and is home to bear, deer, fox and a variety of migratory birds.

At the only building on the land — a log cabin overlooking an apple orchard more than 1.5 miles from Lover’s Lane but still only part way into the property — NEFF Executive Director Robert Perschel welcomed visitors and answered questions.

“We’re just kicking off the campaign,” said Perschel. “It’s a tight schedule.”

Walking from the main road up to the cabin site.

If NEFF can raise the money to buy the acreage, it would establish the Paul Tomasso Memorial Forest, named for a member of the family who disappeared during a hike through Arizona’s Tonto National Forest  in 2014.

Perschel noted that, according to figures compiled by the Harvard Forest and the Highstead Foundation, Chester has put very little land into a protected status. But a closer look shows that the study focused on the period from 1990 to the present, so any land protected before 1990 is not part of the calculation.

According to Spencer Meyer of the Highstead Foundation who worked on those numbers, 23 percent of Vermont’s 6.154 million acres are protected but that the state loses 1,500 acres to development every year. This puts Vermont third out of the six New England states in the amount of protected land behind New Hampshire (30.5 percent) and Massachusetts (24 percent.)

Meyer told The Telegraph that databases of protected lands show Chester with 3 percent (or about 1,074 acres) of protected land. This includes the Town Forest, High School Forest, State Tree Nursery, Williams River State Forest, Adams Lot and some Vermont Land Trust easements.

What is protected land?

A family arrives at the orchard clearing near the cabin.

Meyer defines “protected” as land owned by the public (a town, for example) owned by an organization dedicated to land conservation or land subject to a conservation easement. Current use — the program that taxes land based on its value in producing timber or agricultural products rather than on development value — was not counted since an owner can pay a penalty and remove if from the program according to Meyer. Zoning restrictions were also not considered as a permanent protection. The Tomasso property is in the current use program.

At 1,811 acres, the Paul Tomasso Memorial Forest would be the New England Forestry Foundation’s second-largest community forest, behind the Hersey Mountain Community Forest in New Hampshire, and it would protect more than 5 percent of Chester’s total acreage.

NEFF Executive Director Robert Perschel at the log cabin

Perschel told The Telegraph that the Tomasso family has managed the forest very well and that the foundation’s foresters would continue to manage the property to maintain and improve the forest, offer recreational opportunities and protect the water quality of the Whitmore Brook and the Williams River.

The question of whether the land would be used for wind power has come up at Chester Select Board meetings. Asked about this, Major Gifts Officer Peter Jones said that the foundation has not done wind projects and he would not expect it to in the future but the only way to preclude it would be through an easement that an individual or group would buy and then enforce.

“This forest has the potential to be a true recreational oasis,” said Perschel. “We’re grateful to have received so much support from the Tomasso family and town officials as we work to make this community forest a reality for the people of Chester.”

There is no donation portal specific to the Tomasso Forest campaign on the foundation’s website, but there is a contact form to get in touch with the organization or you can call 978-952-6856 to donate.

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  1. Cynthia Prairie says:

    From what we have gathered in researching this project:
    1. NEFF does not manage the 100 acres proposed for the Antrim project.
    2. NEFF sought and secured a promise from Antrim to conserve 900 acres of adjacent land.
    3. The Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy are backing the project.
    This article may help to clear up the confusion.

  2. Geralyn Donohue says:

    Very odd that NEFF Gifts Officer Peter Jones would not mention the proposed controversial Antrim Industrial Wind Turbine project in Antrim NH on 100 acres managed by NEFF. NEFF was the only entity willing to partner with Antrim Wind Energy to write a conservation easement that would allow for industrial wind turbines.