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Nulhegan Abenaki attain first Tribal Community Forest with OSI grant

BARTON, VERMONT – December 18, 2012 – With their efforts strengthened by a $39,231 grant from OSI’s Community Forest Fund, the Nulhegan Abenaki officially took ownership of the first Nulhegan tribal forestland in 200 years today. The 65-acre parcel, located in Barton, Vermont will be an economic, educational and cultural resource for the tribe, which worked with the Vermont Land Trust and the Sierra Club to acquire the forestland. The Vermont Land Trust holds a conservation easement on the property to ensure it remains permanently undeveloped.

The Nulhegan tribe has just over a thousand members and was officially recognized by the state of Vermont in 2011. The tribe lost the last of their land in the late 1700s; since then they have used town halls and private land owned by individual members for their meetings and celebrations.

“Part of our creation story is that the creator wanted us to be the stewards of the land,” said Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki. “After the land was taken from our ancestors, we were no longer able to be the stewards we were asked to be. Our hearts are heavy with that burden. With our own forest, we can pick up the soil, feel it, smell it, and know that our ancestors walked on this land and it is ours to protect. For this land, we are able to fulfill our promise.”

There is currently a small sugaring operation on the land. The tribe plans to expand sugaring and grow produce using small-scale traditional Abenaki agricultural methods in existing clearings. The forest will provide other economic benefits such as firewood for those in need, hunting opportunities, and a place to gather traditional medicinal plants.

“In spring 2013, for the first time in two centuries, we will be harvesting sap as a community,” said Luke Willard, a trustee of the Nulhegan Abenaki who was pivotal in organizing the conservation effort. “Our ancestors taught this art to the colonists. We will be able to produce the first syrup as a community, as did our ancestors who were on this land hundreds of years ago.”

Currently, the Nulhegan Abenaki do not have any tribal income. Proceeds from sugaring will help the tribe invest in further stewardship of the land and will support a youth education program for tribal and non-tribal children.

The tribe will use the forest to educate tribal and non-tribal children in traditional land stewardship such as sugaring and finding and using medicinal plants. The tribe will also use the land to hold meetings, events and celebrations.

The land will also be the new home of the Seventh Harvest, a community garden and teaching program that has been operating on private land. This year they had 11 families participating by growing food in the traditional Abenaki way—corn, beans and squash planted in a mound of soil, arranged so that each plant benefits the other. “When I first saw the land I came across a clearing,” Willard remembers about his initial visit to the new forest, “I picked up the soil and it was this wonderful humus. I knew right off this soil would grow amazing food.” He expects that between 15 and 20 families could grow food in the clearing as part of the Seventh Harvest program.

The land also has a trail system, which will be open to the public for pedestrian recreation.

“It is very exciting to be part of the creation of a new type of community forest in Vermont,” said Tracy Zschau of Vermont Land Trust. “It would not have been possible without the hard work of the Tribe, Abenaki Helping Abenaki, and a diversity of funders and supportive members of the public.”

The acquisition and conservation of this land was supported by private donations, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the Vermont Community Foundation’s Innovations and Collaborations Grant program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Competitive State Wildlife Grant Program, the VT Chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as the grant from OSI’s Community Forest Fund, which was established  with a lead grant from Jane’s Trust to support the creation and expansion of community forests in northern New England.

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