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Volunteers clean up at Paper Mill Village after tropical storm Irene.

BENNINGTON >> The Bennington County Conservation District (BCCD) is celebrating its 70th anniversary of promoting living in harmony with the land this year.

Shelly Stiles, BCCD director, recently finished "The Big Burn" by Timothy Egan, which documented the August 1910 forest fire near the Montana-Idaho border.

This is about when the term "conservation" brought people and the natural land together, Stiles said.

She wrote this in the first of a series she plans to write involving the theme of living in harmony with the land. "After the big burn, successive Forest Service chiefs struggled whether to suppress wildfires, or to let them burn. We now know that the western white pine, the predominant species in western Montana and eastern Idaho forests in 1910 (and the species on which Weyerhaeuser, for example, built its empire), depended on stand-replacing fires like the big burn to open the woods to sunlight. Yet a policy of complete suppression was adopted. It helped create a constituency for the Forest Service and led to bigger budgets, but we now know it was the wrong policy for the land.


The story of the big burn of more than one hundred years ago reminds me that much to do with land use policy remains unsettled today, in the twenty-first century."

The BCCD was formed in 1946 and Stiles joined in 1993. Since then, the district has grown from working with primarily dairy farmers to all walks of agriculture as well landowners and the community.

"We used to almost only work with dairy farmers and now landowners," she said, "and the general public young and old. It's a movement.

One particular past project included instructing home schooled children to create a poem about a clue pertaining to a particular farm that would be a part of a passbook as part of a farm scavenger hunt. The passbooks were sold at the farmer's market to display the children's work and to also spread awareness of local farms that people may not know exist.

Stiles owes the district's long road of success to the community.

"It's not me, it's us," she said. "It's the community who has done the work and made this possible. We can't do anything by ourselves without the help of our partners."

Nothing is planned for a an anniversary celebration, but Stiles said that something may come about.

Upcoming projects for the district include an invasive species treatment series along the streams of the Battenkill watershed as well as improving the trails at the Headwaters natural park in downtown Bennington. The park is essentially a wetland, Stiles said, and has 165 newly conserved acres available to the public for hiking, kayaking, running, bird watching and other outdoor activities.

According to the Vermont Land Trust, the headwaters park is unique because it's accessible to a neighborhood of a dense population and took more than a decade to generate the project.

"I think the district embodying this concept [conservation] is a part of what Vermont is," she said. "We were strengthening the dairy industry which attached people to the land making a living."

BCCD is also working on hosting an outdoor educational field day at Headwaters with the One World Conservation Center for fifth graders in the area. One World is a platform for nature education while BCCD focuses more on ground work. The rain garden that surrounds One World was put together with help from the district after getting a grant to do a demonstration of green infrastructure, according to Stiles.

The district has also held workshops about invasive species in Vermont, bears, the tick population, birds and other wildlife.

Stiles almost can't believe that the organization has come so far.

"It just boggles my mind to think that it's been this long and the Sierra Nevada Club was established around the same time as well," she said. "It's a pretty long time and I think it illustrates a farsightedness."

For more information on what the BCCD does and upcoming events, visit

—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.