Come for the view, stay for nature

Merck Forest & Farmland Center a pastoral retreat, outdoor classroom

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RUPERT — Looking out from the back deck of the Frank Hatch sap house at the Merck Forest & Farmland Center, the view alone is almost enough to justify a visit to the 3,200 acre nature preserve.

But at this point, the adventure is just beginning.

You reach Merck Forest when you arrive at the highest point on Route 315, between Dorset and Rupert, where a single lane dirt road leads you to the visitors' center and the starting point for whatever you've come to do: hike, snowshoe, run or ski along the preserve's 30 miles of trails.

Maybe you've come to learn about agriculture or forest management, or get a close look at the chickens and other farm animals. If you're arriving during maple syrup season, you can watch the sap gathered from the on-site organic sugar bush converted into sweet syrup. Or you can pause on the deck and stare out across the long valley that stretches westward deep into New York State and the Adirondacks, and just soak it all in.

The Merck Forest and Farmland Center was formed almost 70 years ago by George Merck, the businessman who headed the pharmaceutical firm that still bears the family name. Merck did more than donate the land he acquired as a vacation spot and preserve it as managed forest and farm lands. He created a nonprofit to run and oversee it.

Twelve farms used to occupy the acreage, which Merck acquired over time. Rather than see the land fall prey to development not in keeping with its spectacular location, Merck founded the first environmentally focused land conservation entity in Vermont. His goal is to keep the fields and forests in their natural state — where people can come and enjoy them. Rebuilding the forest might be a more accurate way to put it; by necessity, farming in the 19th and early 20th centuries created vast pastures by deforesting the hillsides and mountains.

The forests that now cover those same hillsides are new growth, and a testament to how quickly nature can recover if allowed. The preserve has kept 60 acres set aside for open farmland, which fits neatly into the broader mission of the center. You can pick your own blueberries from the field. Or you can get acquainted with the pigs and sheep. Skeins of yarn from the farm animals are available for your next knitting project.

As our society gets further away from its agrarian past, Merck Forest sees an important role for itself. The center's mission and purpose have evolved over decades, but connecting people to the land is still the primary goal, said Rob Terry, Merck Forest's executive director.

"Our formal mission is to inspire curiosity, love and responsibility for working and natural land," Terry said. "There's a continuous thread between the founding of Merck Forest in the 1950s and now. The gap we've wound up filling is helping people understand where food comes from."

That thread draws thousands of people each year to Merck Forest & Farmland Center's slopes, fields, woodlands and special events, such as the Harvest Festival scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21. Demonstrations on farm skills, wool, food and horseshoeing are scheduled for the day. There will also be tractor-drawn wagon rides and a local farmers market. Visitors can observe aquatic life at Page Pond, and local producers will be showcasing what they grow, Terry said.

But the calendar at Merck Forest is filled with stuff to do all year long. Had you journeyed there in late July, you might have taken part in the first ever BioBlitz, where, over a 24-hour period, an inventory of the property's plants and animals was taken. That means pollinators, insects, moths, birds, fungi — you name it.

This year's BioBlitz offered a pleasant surprise: the bats are back, said Tim Duclos, Merck's ecologist and conservation manager.

A few years ago, a disease known as white-nose syndrome was threatening to virtually wipe out the local bat population. But the results of BioBlitz told a different story, Duclos said.

"We left a bat detector out (overnight) and completely surprised the state biologist with the abundance of bats we have," he said. More than 500 bat calls were registered, representing more than half of the state's nine bat species, Duclos said.

If getting up close and personal with a bat is not your idea of fun, not to worry. Once you've oriented yourself at the visitors' center and snagged all the maps you can find to allay concerns of getting lost, you're ready to take the deep dive into the woodland trails or plunge into an educational event to learn where food really does come from.

Maybe you want to scratch a longtime itch and finally learn to safely use a chainsaw. There's a workshop for that. Your visit might also include an overnight stay at one of the eight cabins or four lean-to shelters scattered about the property. And feel free to leave your phone or other device in your backpack — internet service here is virtually nonexistent beyond the visitor's center.

Several area schools take field trips to Merck Forest, where students are exposed to the great outdoors through "next generation" science programs, service learning opportunities for high school-age students and farming opportunities.

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Terry said Merck Forest strives to reduce barriers between its visitors and the land by not charging at the door and providing educational programs to local elementary schools, also at no cost.

"We look at ourselves as a gateway," Terry said. "We make landscapes like this accessible to people who may not yet be ready to just pull off on the side of the road and hike into the national forest."

Merck is part of a much larger 42,000-acre block of forestland connecting the Adirondacks with the Green Mountains. Merck considers its 3,200 acres as a "managed forest," and implements a new management plan every 10 years.

"It's like growing a garden," Duclos said. "We want to manage the forest productively and for the birds and wildlife who occupy the forest. We use the best science and knowledge available and set up monitoring programs to measure the progress."

A big concern right now is the apparent advance of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that has been attacking ash trees throughout parts of Vermont and elsewhere. About 6 percent of Merck's forests are ash trees, and Duclos and Terry agree it's probably only a matter of time before the destructive beetle shows up here. It's an ongoing discussion on whether Merck should cut down some of the ash trees or let nature take its course and allow the surviving trees to "parent" a new generation.

Another concern is climate change. Places like Merck Forest can be the canaries in the coal mine, giving early warnings about changes underway that aren't immediately visible or apparent.

Take the red-bellied woodpecker, for example. A decade ago, it wasn't much of a presence here. It is now, because the population has moved northward to escape warmer environments, Duclos said.

The maple trees provide other indicators. Merck Forest produces a lot of maple syrup to sell — and use at its occasional pancake breakfasts. But warmer temperatures mean the sap starts running earlier. But Merck Forest, like every other syrup producer, depends on a good snowpack to lay the groundwork for a good sugaring season. Warmer winters, plus less snow, and earlier tapping lead to uncertainty about how much syrup can be produced, Duclos said.

As with the emerald ash borer, the staff at Merck is keeping an eye on that.

Meanwhile, back at the visitors' center, Liz Ruffa, the center's advancement director, checks the calendar to prepare for upcoming events. August was a busy month — a bluegrass music concert, a children's mushroom hunt and several hikes and workshops crowded the calendar.

In addition to the Harvest Festival Sept. 21, there's a chainsaw safety class for women coming up on Sept. 28, and Oct. 5 will have another workshop to explore who lives in the woods. The Be Brave for Life 5K run and hike, raising funds for brain tumor research, is set for Oct. 6.

"Some families have been coming here for 40 years — it's part of their summer rhythm," Ruffa said, adding that the intergenerational quality of visitors is fun to behold.

And you don't need to be from out-of-state or far away to enjoy it. One family from nearby East Dorset comes for a few days each year right around Christmas, just to get away from the seasonal hustle and bustle, she said.

Ruffa also supervises membership and donor programs, both of which, critical to the institution's financial health and sustainability, are on the rise.

Merck Forest is open daily, from dawn to dusk, and it's free of admission charges. All you need to do is sign in at the visitors' center, which is open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and enjoy the walk.

"There's just so much here to explore," Duclos said.

Landscapes correspondent Andrew McKeever is a freelance writer and the news director of Greater Northshire Access Television.


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