‘The Tree Guy’ retires after 30-plus years

Bill Guenther reflects on a long career as Windham County forester

BRATTLEBORO — “Technology and the workload has burned me out,” said Bill Guenther, who has served as the Windham County Forester from 1987 until he stepped down on Sept. 28.

No more providing education to the general public about the wide variety of trees in Windham County. No more offering technical assistance to landowners on current-use practices. No more certifying and inspecting forest-management plans. No more hunting down and eradicating invasive pests.

For a man who described his job as “more than just a job,” it's a big life change.

“At 8 years old, I realized I wanted to work in the woods,” Guenther said. “I played in the woods. It was a great, magical place where I always felt comfortable.”

Guenther, who grew up in a semi-rural part of central Pennsylvania, moved to Norwich in 1969, when he was a teenager.

After high school, he began taking affordable community college courses to prepare him for a life of forestry.

Then, Guenther got drafted into the Army, and he spent time in Vietnam. As part of his training, he climbed with seven other men to the top of the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in the Alps.

“The summit was so tiny, all eight of us couldn't stand on it at once. I was carrying 110 pounds of gear on my back,” he said.

When Guenther's time in the armed forces was over, he returned to Norwich and took a detour from his journey toward forestry.

Although he had received college funding from the G.I. Bill, it wasn't enough to cover tuition.

“I did job training with the VA [the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] as a hospital administrator. I wanted to save money to go to [the University of Vermont],” he said.

Eventually, he got there and graduated in 1982 with a B.S. in forest management.

Guenther loved his studies, even when they were challenging. He reminisced about one dendrology class where, “in one semester, we had to learn 500 trees by their leaves” and a few other characteristics, he said.

After finishing school, Guenther spent a few years working for a forester, who had him help with a glut of contracts.

“I enjoyed it. The private sector taught me about the business end of forestry,” he said.

“But, I wanted something more educational,” said Guenther, who added, “My real desire was to get into more of the education side.”

He started looking into the state's forestry department, which is part of the Agency of Natural Resources. “There were only 13 county foresters in the state, and I had this dream of becoming one of them,” he said.

From maple syrup to sick trees

Seeing no job openings for county forester anywhere in the state, in 1984 Guenther took a position as the state lands forester, which had him working on public, state-owned land. Some of it was - and still is - leased by ski areas.

“I enjoyed it,” said Guenther. “I was doing some education, but not quite enough.”

Then, the county forester job opened up in Windham County, which was a somewhat rare occasion. In Windham County, the state forestry program began in the mid-1940s, and by the mid-'80s, only three people had held that position.

But when the last guy wanted to retire, Guenther was hired. He left Norwich for the Brattleboro area and started the job in January 1987.

“I'll never forget my first day,” said Guenther. He was working alone in his office and the phone rang.

“I froze. Am I going to be able to answer the question?” he recalls asking himself.

It was a sugar-maker calling. He was having problems with his sugarbush - a lot of problems, he recalled.

“It was a good call for me to take. I knew a lot about those operations,” said Guenther, who found that helping sugar-makers with their trees would become a favorite part of the job.

But it wasn't his only love.

“As time went on, I just thrived in this job. I loved the diversity, the people,” he said. “No two days are ever alike.”

“I did a lot of 'sick tree' calls, where I'd diagnose and do detective work for people's trees,” he said. “That's been fun, because you don't know the history. You just have what you see.”

Guenther also enjoyed the Arbor Day programs he used to offer to schoolchildren. “With kids, you've got to really be on,” he said.

He also loved watching property owners go from near-cluelessness to a high level of expertise in land management.

One client he helped, a man who moved to Windham County from Connecticut, “knew the difference between a maple and a pine but not much more than that,” Guenther said.

The man “was really gung-ho” and absorbed Guenther's lessons like a sponge, he said - and now “he's become a real steward of the land” and has improved drainage and reduced erosion on his property.

“I like talking to different people, from old Vermont dairy farmers to stockbrokers buying second homes. I like to talk to them, to find out how I can help, even before we go off into the woods,” said Guenther.

The diversity in the county's trees is also a selling point.

“We have trees here that typically grow south of here, like hickory, oak, and sassafras,” he said, noting that in Stratton, one finds spruce trees more common to regions farther north.

“Wood is the second-largest manufacturing industry in the state,” said Guenther, and it's crucial that the public understand that our forests “are dynamic ecosystems - they are not static. A lot happens in the soil and in the trees.”

To illustrate, Guenther looked outside at the trees from his office at the Winston Prouty Center.

“The leaves are getting yellow. It's almost time for the trees to drop them, if they're deciduous trees. If the trees kept the leaves in the winter, they wouldn't do well."

Fighting forest fires

One aspect of his job that Guenther found exciting was fighting forest fires. Until he was almost 60, he was a card-carrying member of the Wildland Firefighters, a division of the U.S. Forest Service.

As a sawyer, Guenther would cut fire lines to stop the blazes from traveling any further into the woods.

“I helped with the big Yellowstone fire in 1988,” said Guenther. This series of wildfires, during a drought and high winds, is the largest fire recorded at the national park. Just under 800,000 acres burned over five months.

That fire had him working hot, 18-hour days in remote areas sometimes accessible only through helicopter airlifts.

“It's a big grizzly bear area,” said Guenther. “I slept with my hand on my chainsaw.”

Guenther has good memories of the experience, and spoke fondly of his small crew, which included three female firefighters.

“They had to pass the same physical fitness tests the guys did,” he said.

'It's been my life'

After so many years working in the county's woods, and beyond, what's next for Bill Guenther?

“I'm approaching 66, and I'm feeling my age,” Guenther said. “Well, some days I feel my age. [Other] days I feel like I'm 30-something,” he said.

Guenther has plans to develop a land-use training program for real estate agents and real estate attorneys, and he will offer his services as a consultant. “I'll help my colleagues, too,” he said.

His last official day was Sept. 28, and he returned to clean out his office the following day.

For Guenther, Monday, Oct. 1, his first official day of retirement, he said, “is going to seem really strange. This hasn't been just a job for me. It's been my life.”

“I'm going to get to spend a lot more time with Anna, my lady friend,” said Guenther. “Our goal is to climb three different mountains a week. I've had too much screen time.”

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