Green Mountain National Forest maintains apple trees to support wildlife and more

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WARDSBORO — When thinking about a forest, the image of shadowy tree tops and long wiry limbs comes to mind. While it's a nice atmosphere to escape from bustling city streets, some forests require wide open spaces to support wildlife habitat and native species.

Staffers from the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) visited a site in Wardsboro on Tuesday to do apple tree release work. The idea is to protect existing apple trees from being overcrowded from sunlight by other woody species.

"Ideally we'd like to kill the competing [trees], otherwise they'll grow right back. As long as it's still alive, we'll want to cut it," Rob Abrams, of the GMNF, said.

"That's the reason we do it, because they get overtopped by all these other trees and then once they lose access to sunlight, fruit production fails and the tree will eventually die," said GMNF Wildlife Biologist, Brett Hillman. "The ultimate reason why we do it is to benefit the wildlife from the apples."

"If you do release them after that, they've already adapted to the low light conditions and then sometimes they get burnt when you release them and they die," Abrams added.

Abrams and his partner, Laura McRee, have been working together for two years and entered through the damp morning wildflowers of the Green Mountain National Forest as if it were their own back yard. Most of the work they do, seasonally, is 80 percent tree release and the other 20 percent fisheries work.

They trek a couple yards into the forest, away from the roadway. Hillman said nearby landowners are contacted ahead of time to be notified of the forest work.

Hillman is new to the job so he let the pair take off on their own before joining in. He just took his first chainsaw training class.

Tuesday's job was about a half day's worth of work, Hillman said, but about two dozen trees would be taken down. Next year a prescribed burn will take place to get rid of the various tree piles. The workers also prune the trees for dead limbs and branches.

"This site, once we drop them, [Abrams and McRee] pile them. The piles serve as good wildlife habitat in the short term and I think eventually we'll probably burn this site. The piles just burn easier," Hillman said.

It's an inexpensive method compared to using machinery.

Hillman said hunters particularly appreciate the tree release because it allows for open spaces for deer to roam and feed off natural vegetation.

Abrams pointed out a spot in the forest where a bear had fed. He said he hasn't had any encounters because of how loud his chainsaw is, but he's arrived to a spot and smelled or spotted tracks that meant an animal had just been there.

"This site has a lot of that natural regeneration where bears have eaten apples and where they [left animal droppings] and left seeds behind," he said. "That's one way we can tell the site is being used a lot. That's what we like to see because these trees don't live forever. Often times you can see spots that are super packed down, it would be like a whole apple tree nursery where the bears are just hanging out all season."

While the tree release process supports wild animals, flowers and apple trees, it also encourages pollination. The more space a tree has to grow, the better chance there is for seeds to be spread by animals and wind.

Apple trees tend to get overshadowed by maple, ash, pine and poplar, according to an article from the Vermont Woodlands Association. Consulting Forester Paul Harwood wrote about the care and maintenance of wild apple trees in Vermont and stated that the there used to be 75 percent farmland and 25 percent forest in 1900, but now those figures have switched places.

Harwood writes, "Wild apple trees are a very important part of the seasonal food supply of many species of wildlife...most species of upland mammals and birds make use of apple trees at some point during their lives." The fruit acts as a magnet for those that consume it and for those that consume the insects or animals attracted to the trees or fruit.

— Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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