Logging at Switzkill: Boon or bane? 

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Switzkill Farm as seen from the road into and out of the property. 

BERNE — After the Berne Town Board announced its intention in mid-December to open Switzkill Farm up to loggers, reactions from residents who feel the property has been neglected has ranged from defeat-tinged disappointment to sheer outrage. 

“I think it would be a terrible thing to do,” Richard Ronconi, a member of the Switzkill Farm Board until its dissolution in 2020, told The Enterprise this week. 

Former Supervisor Kevin Crosier, who oversaw the town’s purchase of the property in 2014, called the idea “half-baked” in a social media post.

And former town board member Karen Schimmer, who was among those who unanimously voted in favor of the purchase, told The Enterprise she feels logging “falls far short of the property’s potential and its value,” and that it would not be her “first preference.”

The decision to allow cutting down trees at the relatively undeveloped and highly prized 350-acre property comes after two years of various attempts by the town’s Republican government to rid itself of what it characterizes as a drain on town resources, or to otherwise diminish its productive aspects, such as its potential as a wedding venue, which it had previously been before it was shut down in 2020, or as a cultural benefit that might draw tourists, which it also has done. 

On its face, logging the land is a design to raise money for the town — which appears to be struggling financially, though officials have denied this — without getting involved in the rehabilitation of structures there, like the lodge, that even staunch supporters acknowledge would be necessary to make it a truly profitable property. 

What’s less clear is what impact logging, an aspect of forestry, would actually have on the ecosystem at Switzkill Farm, and whether it would create difficulties in any future attempts to fulfill the vision for it that the original Switzkill Farm Board had — one that relied on its natural beauty. 

Logging is allowed under the terms of the conservation easement that was placed over the property by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy upon its purchase, MHLC Executive Director Mark King told The Enterprise in December. 

It must, however, be done within the context of a forestry plan prepared by an accredited forester, which would be reviewed and approved by the land conservancy, he said. In the easement, the standard of “sound forestry practices” that the town is held to is defined as being those that do not have significant impacts on soil erosion or the forest ecosystem.

The easement also states that the town (or any future property owner) can create unpaved roads to accommodate the practice, and that no more than five acres can have “complete overstory removal” — referring to the upper portion of trees — or any area that’s within public view from a roadway.

“Whether logging is good or bad for a forest depends on the objectives of the landowner,” King explained. “Our expectation for lands under conservation easement is that logging will be done with long-term wildlife and forest health as key objectives.  

“It is important to recognize that logging encompasses a wide variety of activity, from commercial harvest to clear-cutting for wildlife. And again objectives drive the process. Clear-cutting in northern Maine is very beneficial for lynx, clear-cutting other places might be catastrophic.”   

In general, logging can be an important part of forestry. In a municipal guide to forestry published in 2005, the Department of Environmental Conservation speaks glowingly of the role of timber production and other components of the tree industry in rural economies.

The guide acknowledges, too, that timber use can be a powerful incentive for the broader proliferation of forests in the state, on land which could otherwise be developed or converted to less environmentally friendly uses.

“For many private landowners,” the DEC guide says, “the opportunity to periodically earn income from their forest land is an important, if not essential, factor contributing to their ability to sustainably manage their forest and resist pressure to subdivide or develop their land.”

Also, cutting invasive tree species can be beneficial for forest health, since, by definition, these species crowd out those that are more desirable because of their role in the ecosystem. The Pine Bush Preserve Commission, for instance, cuts down or burns trees so that the preserve can remain a valuable pine barren.

However, logging must be carried out responsibly so that immoderation or decisions driven purely for financial gain do not create lasting damage. For instance, the DEC notes in its municipal guide that high-grading, or the practice of targeting the highest-valued trees for removal while ignoring lesser trees, creates altogether weaker forests.

Schimmer suggested she doesn’t think the risk is worth taking when alternatives exist.

“The Strategic Plan for the park, updated in 2020 by the Switzkill Board, a group of community volunteers appointed by the sitting Town Board of that time, suggests many uses that would benefit the Town and its citizens,” Schimmer said in an email answering Enterprise questions. 

“The allure of the beautiful property and facility has drawn people from surrounding areas,” she wrote, “generating business for local restaurants and service markets, and could provide our residents with a facility for celebrations, outdoor activities, educational workshops, and school groups.  

“It was already being used by families, civic organizations, and students while still in its initial stages of development,” she said. “Weddings, showers, graduation parties, anniversary parties, birthday celebrations and more were successfully held on site. 

Ronconi told The Enterprise that the prospect of logging had been discussed in the six years when he was on the Switzkill Farm Board, and that the board had always resisted it. 

“I have seen places where loggers have come in and cut lumber, and it’s an absolute disaster after they get through with it,” he said. “They drag out all of their logs and they leave a whole bunch of ruts and unnecessary trails and all kinds of tops of trees around.”

And all the restrictions and guidelines in the world won’t necessarily stop anyone who simply doesn’t care. Ronconi said he does not trust the current administration with the responsibility of caring for the forest, given the way it has dismissed the Switzkill Farm’s potential in the past, and pointed to the longstanding resentment that exists around as a potential justification on their part.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the town,” Ronconi said, explaining that he has been so dismayed by its governance in the past two years that he has withdrawn himself from the town except “to go to the dump.”

“Whatever they agree to, I don’t believe they’ll do what they’re supposed to do,” he opined. “They’re certainly not looking out for the benefit of a piece of property. They’re just looking at it to make some more money, destroy as much as possible. It’d be nice if the land conservancy can hold them back a little, so it won’t be as bad, maybe, as I think it would be. But I don’t have any faith in that either.” 

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