Expanded wetlands benefit wildlife and humans alike

CORNWALL — As visitors looked out over the broad plain of the Lemon Fair River off West Street in Cornwall on Tuesday, they could see a lazy river meandering through hay fields. Longtime Cornwall resident and Waterfowl Advisory Committee member Lawrence Pyne said he could easily recall a much wetter scene.

“Locally we call this section between Routes 74 and 125 ‘Lake Lemon Fair,’ only partially tongue in cheek,” he said. “But virtually every spring and usually every fall the Fair will jump its banks and you will see hundreds of acres of sheet water down on these fields, with incredible numbers of migratory birds and incredible species diversity, as well.

“It’s truly a special place.”

Pyne and about 30 other conservationists, state officials and interested citizens gathered for an event celebrating the expansion of the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area, which will bring improved protection of the important wetlands and clayplain forest areas along the Lemon Fair River straddling the Cornwall-Bridport line.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s recent purchase of 330 acres from local landowners almost doubles the size of the critical LFWMA, expanding it to 744 acres in total. The lands were purchased in partnership with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Vermont Land Trust.

The area is critical to humans and critters alike for a number of reasons.

The low-lying wetlands in the Lake Champlain Valley are a unique ecosystem in a state made up primarily of forested mountains. Officials said the Lemon Fair River valley is second only to Addison County’s Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area as habitat for migratory waterfowl, in terms of sheer numbers of birds and diversity of species alike.

The low-lying stretches along the Lemon Fair are also home to migratory birds like the bobolink that nest in pastures and whose numbers have declined by over 50 percent since 1970. As climate change makes it possible to hay earlier and earlier, the birds’ nests can be inadvertently destroyed before hatchlings mature, so creating protected areas for grassland species gives the birds a big boost towards stabilizing.

Dotting the river valley are also remnant patches of the clayplain forests (dominated by oak and hickory) that once carpeted most of the Champlain Valley. Though not considered first growth per se, the land recently acquired for the LFWMA includes stunning individual oaks over 200 years old. The rough bark of these oaks and of large shagbark hickories provides important nesting sites for the endangered Indiana bat, which roosts in summer “maternity colonies” sleeping under the sun-warmed bark and coming out at dusk to eat mosquitoes and other flying insects. Statewide, six of Vermont’s nine bat species have seen their numbers plummet by over 85 percent because of the fungal white nose syndrome. Helping these bats to stabilize and rebuild their populations will also help local residents in their annual fight against mosquitoes and insect-born diseases.

The expanded WMA will also help to provide a better corridor for wildlife traveling between the Green Mountains and the Lake Champlain shoreline, conservationists said. This includes everything from salamanders to deer, bear, bobcats, and even the occasional moose. The clayplain forest remnants now protected in the LFWMA will also help environmental scientists in their efforts to better understand and regenerate this important ecosystem that once covered over 220,00 acres across the Champlain Valley.

For local residents and Vermonters from elsewhere, expanding protected wetlands will help to improve overall flood resilience and the quality of water flowing into Lake Champlain.

Perhaps most important for Vermonters who want to get out and enjoy the state’s natural beauty, the new parcels will provide a much needed place to park and walk into the wildlife area off Cornwall’s West Street, something sorely lacking until now.

LANDOWNER GENEROSITY

While speakers at the event commended the multiple partnerships among nonprofit, state and federal agencies that made the purchase and ongoing restoration of the land possible — and many noted that Vermont is seen as exceptional among state and federal land and species conservationists for the effective and friendly ways that state and federal employees work together — a special shout-out was given to local landowners, whose willingness to work with and sell land to Fish and Game are essential to expanded public access.

“Only a small part of Vermont land, only about 15 percent, is owned publicly,” said Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter. “Without those willing landowners participating and working together with us we wouldn’t be able to do projects like this. So I just wanted to thank the Bonners and the Hottes and the Gortons and all the neighbors who live around here and who will be part of this partnership going forward.”

The Hotte and Bonner families have already completed the sale of parcels now part of the newly expanded LFMWA. Although a few i’s are left to be dotted on the sale of the Gorton property, state officials anticipate closing on that parcel by the end of August, and the Gorton acreage is considered part of the LFWMA’s new expansion to 744 acres.

For landowner Jesse Hotte of Bridport, who marshaled his eight siblings to come together and agree to sell their family’s 46.5 acres of former dairy land to the state, the change in use and ownership is a good thing. The Hotte family began farming the parcel in the late 1950s and continued through the mid-1990s, when they stopped dairying.

Hotte remembered what it was like to try and farm a patch of land that was so often flooded.

“In the springtime, it’s a lake. Every spring,” he said. “We used to hay it, and it was always an adventure. You never knew what would have floated down into the pasture, logs or big limbs. The only time you could get down there was in August in the dog days of summer, and by that time the grass was about seven feet tall. It’d be so tall you couldn’t see two inches in front of you. It was very tall. We’d still cut it, but it would take us quite a while. We’d use it for bedding and for heifer feed. It wasn’t the best hay, but it was something.”

Hotte, who continues to make a diversified income from agriculture, growing hay, selling sawdust to dairy farmers, and providing trucks and heavy equipment, is optimistic about the future of his family’s former parcel.

“We knew that Fish and Wildlife would do a good job with it,” he said.

Cornwall land owner Matthew Bonner also agrees that selling to increase public lands has been a step in the right direction. Before Bonner bought the land, it had already been entered into a federal wetlands program, which protects it but also restricts its uses.

“It’s an ecologically sensitive area,” Bonner said. “I could ski or hunt or birdwatch in it, but that was about it. So we wanted to make it available to the public. We wanted to see it pass on to the public.”

MARGINAL LANDS

The very qualities that made the low-lying pastures marginal for farming and such an adventure to mow for the Hotte family are precisely what make it an incredibly rich area for wildlife and an important ecosystem to restore and conserve.

“If you were to go down to the river right now, you’d scratch your head and ask, ‘What’s so special about it?’” Pyne said. “Right now it’s a muddy ditch with no discernable current. But that’s part of the Lemon Fair’s beauty. It has an incredibly low gradient, and it floods at the drop of a hat.

“In fact, if we get a big thunder storm event down south in Rutland County and the Otter Creek comes up, the Lemon Fair will actually reverse flow in its lower reaches. The Otter Creek will spill into the Lemon Fair instead of the Lemon Fair draining into the Otter Creek.”

Flat fields and good drainage are great for farming but wetlands need to follow the kinds of natural undulations and meanderings cut by water as it floods, sinks and drains. Wetland biologists are already at work filling in drainage ditches, recreating the kinds of varying and sinuous topography created by the river’s annual cycles, and replanting the regraded areas with shrubby willows and dogwood, green ash, swamp white oak, silver maples and shagbark hickory.

The new pedestrian access will make it easier for birders, hikers, hunters, anglers, trappers and wildlife watchers to enjoy the lands along the Lemon Fair. Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz said that was an important way to help Vermonters appreciate the natural treasures that surround them.

“People only protect the things they love, and they only love the things they know from experience,” she said.

“The more we can give Vermonters an opportunity to experience parcels like this, special places like this, the more we’ll have the advocates we need to make sure that in the future we’ll continue to make Vermont really the Green Mountain State and protect our nature.

“The goal is not just to protect and preserve these great properties for wildlife — it’s also for people.”

Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

DEB MARKOWITZ, SECRETARY of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, speaks in a field in Cornwall Tuesday morning during a gathering to announce the expansion of the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area.

 

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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