Editor’s note: This story by Claire Potter first appeared in the Valley News on February 21.
SHARON – A local non-profit organization donated 256 acres to Sharon and Strafford for a common municipal forest earlier this month.
“I think it’s wonderful. We envision recreation, in many forms. It’s a good educational resource and a natural resource like a forest,” said Sharon Selectboard member Kevin Gish.
Strafford owns about 106 acres of forest and Sharon owns about 150 acres. The forest is the first two-city forest in the state and will be managed jointly.
In 2018, the nonprofit Alliance for Vermont Communities purchased the property for more than $300,000 as part of its effort to block a development project that would have brought up to 20,000 new residents to the rural community .
Sharon and Strafford are in the process of appointing a committee to oversee the Ashley Community Forest. The city’s respective selection committees will each appoint two representatives, and then the four together will select a fifth, Gish said. He said councils hoped to finalize membership within a month and were looking for candidates “with varying interests”.
The first task of the new committee will be to draw up a management plan. The potential uses of forests are manifold, he said. It can provide firewood to residents in need and it can house a new sugar farm.
In the meantime, the forest is open to the public.
The Alliance for Vermont Communities has donated $20,000 to create a stewardship fund, said Michael Sacca, who heads the nonprofit. The objective is for the forest to be autonomous. Potential revenue from fundraising or forestry could help pay for upkeep, he said.
The Alliance for Vermont Communities also discussed continuing its community outings in the forest. Some outings focused on natural history topics, including mushrooms and ferns, while others looked at the brickwork running through the forest and evoking its history in the 19th century, when the land was home to a thriving sheep farm. .
Sacca said there will likely be meetings in the spring to get public input on the management process.
Setting up an interlocal agreement was a challenge that took years, Sacca said.
For forest connectivity – a key goal for wildlife – there are benefits to managing forests from a broader regional perspective rather than city by city, he said.
“We’ve created something that hopefully could be a model for other communities,” he said.
Utah native David Hall had hoped to use the property for a 5,000-acre development that would further his utopian vision. The NewVistas Foundation, headed by Hall, is dedicated to “sustainable prosperity.” He funded dense, self-sufficient developments modeled on Mormon records from the 1830s. Hall learned to admire the area while visiting the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial in South Royalton.
Hall abandoned the project after vehement local opposition, and the four towns – Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge – continued to work together to plan for future growth.