Profiles in Conservation

Build a relationship with your woods

Personal philosophy drives Vermont logger’s teachings

For Vermont-based logging instructor Nick Zandstra, every course he teaches is infused with his own personal philosophy: forestry is based on relationships.

“When someone buys or manages a woodlot, they enter into a relationship with the woods as a whole,” he said. “That idea of working with your woods in a relationship, as opposed to resources you have to mine, is really important. Within that analogy of a relationship, all the things that people deal with in relationships come into place working in the woods.”

Conversely, if you look at your friends just as monetary resources, he said, you won’t keep them long. However, if you look at woods as a part of a relationship, it’s mutually beneficial and the forest can grow as a person would, as opposed to a bank account.

“It changes the face of what you’re doing,” he added.

“Wood” was the name of a 1,500-word essay of his in which he wrote, “Because trees are living things and part of a living ecosystem, it is possible to have a relationship with them. Relationships require effort.”

Zandstra said he gets a lot of satisfaction from teaching logging courses to landowners. “On the relationship end of it, I get to spread the word about introducing people to a new way of managing their woods. It also helps me to stay sharp by having to tell people about it. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Does this [job] fit with my philosophy?’”

He said he teaches three different courses. One is part of an adult education woodworking certificate program class for Yestermorrow Design/Build School ( in Waitsfield, VT. Another is a stand-alone course about harvesting your own sustainable lumber, also at Yestermorrow. A third course is for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA (

The MOFGA one is more about log extraction techniques and some general forestry practices, he said. The Yestermorrow class covers everything from tree identification to lumber, milling, and stacking on site.

While teaching courses directly benefits his students, the practice also helps him to maintain and build his own awareness of forestry issues, he said. Safety awareness, for instance, is really important.

“Awareness is also important to a relationship, and it shapes how you look at the woods,” he said. “When you increase your awareness, you start seeing things happening in the world that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Zandstra said he has been teaching the classes now for a little over 10 years. Here is how he started.

“I found myself doing ‘micro-logging’, harvesting just a few trees at a time, for a few customers. It gave me a unique perspective that I felt I could share with other landowners. Then a friend of mine said I should teach a class at Yestermorrow Design/Build School. That was 10-12 years ago.”

Zandstra got involved with MOFGA back in 1999 to do a low-impact forestry course. “I started as a volunteer,” he said. “I worked with a horse logger and used that connection to get into teaching. That is when I picked up a lot of good forestry information and developed my own philosophy for forest management. After a couple years I started bringing my saw mill to courses and taught that. It expanded from there.”

He has landed a few jobs as a result of doing the classes, he said, and he gets a lot of positive feedback from attendees.

“Whenever I run into people later, they often say they loved the class and were grateful for attending it. I’m an enthusiastic teacher, and I put a lot into my classes. I give them enough information so that they can decide whether or not they want to buy or manage their woodlot. The only negative feedback I get sometimes is they wish the class was longer.”

Zandstra’s students come from diverse walks of life. Some of them come from down the street, while others come from as far away as the West Coast, or even farther. Attendees range from the young to very old.

“It’s a really broad spectrum,” he added. “It’s everything from young teens right out of high school to retirees who want to manage their land.”

“At Yestermorrow, I get teenagers, retirees — even the occasional architect looking to start a new career path. I’ve had people come from as far away as California and even Central America. The last guy asked me about management techniques for rainforests — a little out of my league. Even with that, though, the idea of working with your woods in a relationship is important and sort of universal.”

At MOFGA, it’s mostly landowners who want to learn how to manage their woods, he said. The MOFGA people tend to come from within a 100-mile radius, though occasionally someone comes from as far away as Massachusetts.

He said he’s done more than 40 MOFGA courses over the years, including demonstrations at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME, where he typically demonstrates all three days.

Most of his classes have smaller numbers of students. The Yestermorrow class is about 10-12 students, and the MOFGA class has about eight students. Some of his public demonstrations at fairs can be quite popular, however. The demos introduce hundreds of people at a time to these forestry practices, he added.

“I once showed 60 people how to drop a tree at one class,” he said. “I also trained several hundred people through Yestermorrow, 40-50 at MOFGA, and hundreds more at demos.”

He said his workshops best serve to benefit forests if they can change a person’s view of the forest as a bank account that’s going to be liquidated to one involving an ongoing relationship. “It’s where you can get cash from your forest, but you can also make deposits,” he said. “The benefits include having a positive relationship, not just monetarily, but other ways as well.”

Zandstra is passionate about his teaching and his logging philosophy, though it’s not his entire life. He is a married father of two. He and his wife, Betsy, help care for their daughter, Claire, age 5, and son, Soren, age 2. “He’s the one keeping me up at night. Not sleeping too well,” he added.

They make their home on a 53-acre plot of land in East Topsham, VT, bordering on the Taber Branch River. About 40-42 acres are forested; the other part is wild field. Zandstra said he first bought 43.5 acres in ’98 and added another 8.5 acres and farmhouse across the street 6 years ago.

“Betsy manages the farmland,” he added.

Sometimes people will seek him out to do a one-time thinning operation on their properties. “For customers, I rarely go back — usually it’s once and done,” he said. “I’ll do a thinning project and build their building for them. I don’t often get back to their woods.”

“I walk in my woods all the time, though,” he added.

He said he prefers to harvest trees in ways that do not dramatically alter the look of the forest.

“In my woods, in the places where I did the most thinning, and at MOFGA woods, when I’m done logging in an area, you can’t tell that much that logging has been done. Sometimes I’ll just take out one or a few trees. Rarely more than a 50- to 75-foot circle is being opened up at any given time,” he added.

“Since I have my portable sawmill, I tend to take smaller logs and often lower quality trees,” he said. “I do this because I’m able to make these low-quality logs into something worthwhile because I’m doing the sawing. I try to follow best logging practices where the slash is lower than 4 feet high. I try not to leave it too messy. I do occasionally leave taller brush piles as habitat for foxes and other wildlife.”

Zandstra described some common forest changes in the months and years after one of his logging operations.

“Usually there are some raspberry and blackberry bushes, if I made enough of an opening. My woodlot is dominated by hemlock, and MOFGA’s woodlot is dominated by white pine. On my woodlot, it’s about 50-60 percent hemlock and a steep, west-facing hill,” he added.

“On both of those very different woodlots, balsam fir is one of the first trees to pop up after a harvesting. White pine shows up later in my woodlot, and later there’s an explosion of understory growth.”

He added, “MOFGA left a couple areas unmanaged, and there were a couple places managed last year. The places that were managed long ago have very dense undergrowth. The places where we did it last year are still quite open. It usually goes in the order of bushes to pioneer tree species, then fir, spruce, hemlock, and finally hardwoods.”

Mixed in on both woodlots are varieties of hardwoods that include red maple, sugar maple, and beech, he said. “My woodlot has more yellow and white birch than MOFGA’s,” he added. “They have some oak. I have no oak, whatsoever. There’s also ash and hop hornbeam, sometimes called ‘ironwood’.”

Zandstra does other nonteaching gigs from time to time. “I did a couple projects for the State of Vermont. Two or three years ago, Karl, my carpentry partner, and I rebuilt eight Adirondack shelters that dated back to the 1930s. They were on Kettle Pond and Osmore Pond.”

“They were historic Civilian Conservation Corps shelters. It was an historic preservation project. We got to cut down a couple trees that were planted by the people who built the shelters. We used the trees the guys planted more than 80 years ago to fix the shelters. These guys who planted these trees, they would be so honored to see them helping to fix the structures that they built.”

If all that wasn’t enough to make for a full life, Zandstra even does bit parts in films on occasion.

“A couple young guys in the area are amateur film makers, and they do these ‘film slams’ under the name Team Malone,” he said. “In a film slam, they get a genre, a prop, and a location, and then they have 48 hours to make a movie. I just help out. Each one is set up differently. “

“I just show up and they like me to make a cameo appearance in their films. I’m not much involved in the creative process. I do an hour of acting and I go home,” he added.

“When I first moved to Vermont in ‘98 I was a carpenter and I did local theatre, about one play a year. These film guys thought of me as an actor,” he said. “Now they’ve been doing these films for 8-9 years, and they do a couple each year. They call me up, I help out, and sometime later there’s a movie.”

“It’s a fun and goofy thing.”

by Glenn Rosenholm

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