The Colgate Scene
March 1999
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The renaissance rustic

A professional forester, John Wiggin '66 has spent the past 27 years planning for the future. While he has a country quality, Wiggin is far from simple or awkward. Indeed, there is a complicated grace about him.

by John D. Hubbard
[IMAGE] A month of good snow has been threatened with ruin by an all-night rain, but still people come to the Woodstock Ski Touring Center just beyond the sidewalks of one of Vermont's most picturesque towns.

     John Wiggin '66, who emerged from the woods last fall, greets his customers -- there's wet, loose granular snow on the trails, he reports -- and suggests snow-shoeing.

     Wiggin has been directing the center, come winter, since 1972. For much of that time he's also been managing Laurance S. Rockefeller's woods.

     Rockefeller owns the Woodstock Resort Corporation and a fair amount of land, including, until recently, the 555 acres that is now the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park.

     "Mr. Rockefeller is really hands-on and he takes keen pride in his property," says Wiggin, who has been in his employ since coming out of Yale with a masters of forest science back in '72.

     A sociology and anthropology concentrator at Colgate, Wiggin entered Naval Officer School after graduation. As an officer in the Underwater Demolition teams (now called SEALS) he spent 1969 "over in Vietnam," an experience that caused him to reevaluate his future.

     "Vietnam banged me over the head. Life is short, better do what you want." That meant studying forestry rather than pursuing a more traditional business career. Dating back to the Civil War, Wiggin's kin have had a place in Vermont where he spent his formative summers doing farm work and wandering the woods.

Life in Vermont
The Rockefeller offer fit perfectly. Wiggin married, he and Judy had two children -- Adam and Abby -- and John took to the woods with a program of conservation that was more intense and multiple-use minded than just having a logger come in every 10 years.

     "While active silviculture was practiced and many products were harvested, Mr. Rockefeller doesn't need to cut his ash trees to pay taxes," says Wiggin. "Aesthetics were a high concern."

     George Perkins Marsh, who in 1864 wrote Man and Nature and is considered the father of conservation, was born on the land. A generation later Fredrick Billings, Mary Rockefeller's grandfather, noted Marsh's view of man's role as a spoiling agent in nature, bought the land and created an estate. A lawyer who made his fortune during California's gold rush days, Billings' care for the land offered, by his example, both a more respectful and scientific agriculture and forestry.

     The Rockefeller family has been similarly conservationally-minded, helping to protect the American heritage in places as far-flung as the Virgin Islands, Williamsburg and the Grand Tetons. Indeed, Laurance S. has used his land around Woodstock to guide the town's development by holding on to key green belts.

     "I take some pride in having the work we've done put forth to the public as an example of conservation," says Wiggin, who continues as a consultant to the historic park.

     Vermont is within a two- to five-hour drive for tens of millions of people. Four-lane interstates and hi-tech communications have toppled two of the state's historic impediments to growth -- accessibility and jobs. The results, according to Wiggin, will be even more farmers going out of business, more land being chopped up, more houses.

     "The state is going to be more gentrified and more suburban but compared to New York City, it's still going to seem rural. Privacy may be one of the key things money can buy.

All trails open
A month after the January thaw, there is 100 percent coverage on the ski touring center's 67 kilometers of trails. Headquartered on Vermont's oldest golf course, the trails also take skiers up on national park property and through cultural landscape that includes some of the nation's oldest forest plantations. Skiers can glide along streams, under red pine and across a sugarbush.

     The cross-country skiing boom seems to have passed but Wiggin says all the values that fueled the sport's popularity are still in place.

     "It's cheaper than alpine skiing, families can ski together. Novices and experts can enjoy the same trails. There's fitness and the chance to get back to nature."

     Wiggin oversees the trails and the operation of the center, which includes equipment rentals, lessons and a retail shop.

     "Being so tied to the weather, it's a tough business. You can't take it personally or you'll go bald like me." Wiggin is off to greet a couple interested in seeing an out-of-the-way piece of Vermont up close.

     "Through all these years when the forestry ends I'm sort of glad to come in and deal with folks. And in March, when I've been up to my armpits in people and just a few bounces ahead of the brush fires, it's good to get back to the woods."

     Wiggin is close to the land, professionally and spiritually. He has served on several boards, including the Vermont Land Trust and the state's Institute of Natural Science, and is chairman of the local parks commission. He uses his time off to dive, ski and canoe -- "You won't find me at the malls."

     He is a hard man, sure and fast, but he tempers it with humor, often self-effacing. He is good with people -- there is a clipped charm about him -- but it is obvious he loves the trees and the cantankerous Vermont topography. It is where he has made his mark.

     John Wiggin takes the long view. "The work we're doing matters both now and for generations down the road." His mark will stand.

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