If you’ve been skiing, biking, canoeing, hiking or camping anywhere across northern New England or New York, you’ve been enjoying the Northern Forest. It is the largest intact forest in the eastern United States, covering 30 million acres and stretching nearly 400 miles from New York’s Tug Hill Plateau to Maine’s northern and eastern borders with Canada.
“It covers some seriously great skiing territory — downhill, backcountry and cross-country — and is home to more than 2 million people who live in rural communities and small cities surrounded by the vast forest,” said Kelly Short, communications director for the Northern Forest Center, which works tirelessly to address the needs of the region’s communities while thoughtfully stewarding its forest-based economic future.
By investing in communities, advancing the forest economy and providing regional leadership, the center — among so many other things — helps to improve outdoor recreation opportunities by establishing Community Forests, redeveloping housing and retail properties, supporting innovation in forest-based businesses, advocating for public policy and cultivating a variety of funding sources for projects across the vast region.
A Boston College graduate in communications with a focus on journalism, Short first served as a consultant when the center was created in 1997 before joining the staff full time in 2004. New England Ski Journal caught up with her to talk about the center’s work, including its recreation and tourism focused program called Destination Development.
New England Ski Journal: Are you a native New Englander and did the outdoors play an important part in your upbringing?
Kelly Short: I’m definitely a New Englander. I grew up in Connecticut and Maine, lived in Boston and then moved to New Hampshire. As a kid, most of my outdoor time was in the backyard or at the beach, but I went on a weeklong canoe camping adventure in northern Maine one summer and it showed me a whole new world. That trip and the great hiking opportunities that opened up when we moved to Mount Desert Island — home of Acadia National Park — changed the way I thought about being outdoors.
NESJ: Prior to joining on with the Northern Forest Center, you worked at the Appalachian Mountain Club, editing its magazine and later becoming communications director. How does this experience connect to the work you’re doing with the center today?
Short: We covered all the outdoor issues and activities that AMC members cared about, from hiking and alpine zone stewardship to whitewater canoeing and backcountry skiing. That’s when I started to learn that there was a science to trail building and managing special outdoor places so people wouldn’t “love them to death.”
This was in the late ’80s and real estate was booming. For the first time, about a million acres of forestland was offered for sale publicly rather than passing quietly from one paper or timber company to another. That sale is what drew attention to the Northern Forest of northern New England and New York, and I learned about the related issues — the future of the region’s forest-based economy, the tradition of public access to private forestland, the Northeast’s tiny percentage of public land as compared to the West, and more — by writing and publishing about them for AMC’s members.
NESJ: Can you share the vision of the Center’s Destination Development program?
Short: The philosophy that drives our work in outdoor recreation is what we call Destination Development. We’re helping communities improve or create recreational opportunities that serve residents and attract visitors — ideally even attract new residents. Our communities need an influx of people in their 20s and 30s and 40s to counter the current demographics.
Communities that have downtown trails connecting to accessible trails in forests and along rivers, or have a mountain biking skills park, or beginner hills for ski jumpers, are going to be the places that are fun to visit and live in. We’re helping communities offer more of what outdoor-minded people are looking for.
NESJ: What are some of the recreation-focused projects the center is working on this summer?
Short: In the recreation world, we’re working with nine mountain biking venues to put the Northern Forest on the map as a great mountain biking destination called Bike Borderlands. The initiative started a few years ago and has grown in many ways. We’ve raised funds to help each destination build new trails or add programs this summer, and we’re working together on Ride With Gratitude, a campaign to encourage mountain bikers to respect all trails users and the private lands they get to ride on.
Some of the trails are close to well-known skiing terrain, including Burke Mountain — adjacent to Kingdom Trails — for downhill riding, and the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where purpose-built mountain bike trails flow between established nordic trails. Further east, Mount Abram is partnering with Borderlands member Inland Woods + Trails partner in Bethel, Maine, as they ramp up their downhill riding program.
We’ve just started the Northern Forest Rural Tourism Academy, which will gear up in the fall to provide training and planning services along with some direct financial and technical assistance to support sustainable destination development that balances visitor experiences with stewardship of natural resources and local values in communities in northern New Hampshire and northeastern Vermont. This project builds on similar work we’ve done in rural destinations across the Maine Woods, including development of the Mahoosuc Way sustainable tourism initiative in the Bethel area.
And that’s just some of our work. Even with great recreation amenities, another barrier to attracting new residents to rural communities is housing. We’re finishing a complete renovation of an 11,000-square-foot historic Main Street building in Lancaster, New Hampshire, which will create new retail space and quality downtown apartments. We’re capitalizing an investment fund to expand our housing and property redevelopment work to other communities, and we’re investing $2.6 million over three years — with partners — to create market demand forest products from the region. And honestly, there’s more.
NESJ: It all seems overwhelming. How does the center’s team manage this ambitious work?
Short: The logistics can get challenging. We find we get the best results — and have the most fun — when we can be with people in their communities, but that can mean a lot of time in the car. It’s worth it, though, because relationships are key to creating the kind of long-term change we’re working toward. We’re also really aware of the magnitude of opportunity for this region, and that does translate to having a lot of initiatives going at once. One reason this is possible is that we do so much of our work in partnership with other organizations and in coalitions. We play to our strengths — bringing resources and strategy, helping communities and businesses build their own capacity — and rely on partners to have the extensive local networks or to do a lot of the local hands-on work.
NESJ: How many people are on staff at the center?
Short: For staff, we have 15 people plus four open positions and about half of us are based in Concord, New Hampshire, which is a very central starting point if you need to travel to Tupper Lake, New York, one day and Greenville, Maine, another day. The other half of the team is in field offices around the region, including Millinocket, Bethel and Portland, Maine, northern New Hampshire and the Adirondacks. We work in teams based on our three program areas and we work very intentionally to keep the programs integrated. The true sweet spot for the center’s work is where community, economy and forest stewardship come together.
(The center is hiring for four positions, including program manager for the Northeast Kingdom and a business innovation advisor whose location is flexible. For details, visit https://nfcenter.org/Jobs.)
NESJ: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, interest and attention on outdoor recreational pursuits has spiked. How has this impacted the center’s work?
Short: Even before COVID-19 turned up the demand and attention for outdoor recreation, we saw it as an important pillar of the region’s economy. In 2018 we co-convened a regional symposium that brought together 170 people engaged in the outdoor recreation sector from all four states. That gathering was the basis for a lot of our current recreation programming. It led to new funds to support recreation, including the Northern Forest Destination Development Initiative, through which we and partners awarded more than $600,000 in grants for projects in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. It demonstrated the need for state offices to support outdoor recreation, and it spawned some new groups to support community-based recreation.
NESJ: What has been the most rewarding accomplishments for the center over the years?
Short: What’s most rewarding is also what’s most challenging. We’re creating a new approach to community and economic development. We want the Northern Forest to be a thriving and welcoming region sustained by innovation and environmental stewardship. Change at this scope takes time, and it’s built with many intertwining pieces — hence our programs in investing in communities, advancing the economy and providing regional leadership.
NESJ: Where do you see the center in the next 20 years and what legacy is it building for future residents and recreationalists?
Short: I’m sure we’ll keep developing new ways to serve the region while being true to our approach of working in partnership with communities, businesses and other organizations. Instead of imposing a set of fixed projects, we talk with people to find out what challenges they’re facing and how we can help, based on our skills.
I think our legacy for the region and for outdoors folk will be to bring them together — literally — and to create greater appreciation for this special place. The Northern Forest is a wonderful region with so much to offer people who love the outdoors, but people need jobs and thriving communities as well as places to recreate. So, in addition to helping communities build their recreational assets, we’re also helping them improve their broadband service, their housing quality, and create new business opportunities. We want people to discover the Northern Forest and bring our tagline to life: Live the new forest future.