Group spearheads wetland restoration effort

MIDDLEBURY — Grass rustled in a muddy, sulphur-smelling ditch in Bridport, and just beyond the property line, vehicles hummed through fields of long grasses, cutting and sweeping the cuttings up to store for winter feed.
The long, deep ditch sits close to the edge of 175 acres along the Lemon Fair River that was, until recently, agricultural land. Years before that, the area was a wetland vital to the health of both the Lemon Fair and, at its end, Lake Champlain.
Now, thanks to generous funding and the collaboration of a number of conservation organizations and departments, this land will one day return to wetland.
“In the ’30s and ’40s, these ditches went in,” said April Moulaert, a Burlington-based wetland biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a wetland and waterfowl conservation group. “There was a big push to convert these areas into productive farmland, to varying success.”
Moulaert coordinates outreach for the team of organizations working to restore wetlands within the 2.9 million acres — 4,650 square miles — of Vermont land that feeds Lake Champlain. These organizations include the Natural Resources Conservation Service (an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture), the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited.
Moulaert explained that the organizations hope to restore these wetlands because the mid-century push to create additional farmland cost the state of Vermont about one third of its historic wetland acreage. The loss of wetlands has taken a toll on the water quality in many of the rivers in the basin — and, as a result, on the water quality and biodiversity of Lake Champlain.
“Wetlands are often called the kidneys of the environment,” said Moulaert. “They’re able to hold floodwaters if they’re along the flood plain, and then sediments that come in (with the floodwater) can settle out.”
When the river overflows its banks on this stretch of land in Bridport, the floodwaters run into the ditch and back into the Lemon Fair River. In a wetland environment, the water would come to a standstill and allow the phosphorous-dense sediment to settle back into the ground, adding valuable nutrients to the soil. Instead, the water flows directly back into the Lemon Fair, sweeping the sediment along with it.
When high levels of phosphorous are pumped into a freshwater system like Lake Champlain, said George Tucker, a soil conservationist at the Middlebury NRCS office, the system can undergo drastic alterations. The phosphorous spurs algae growth, which in turn limits the amount of oxygen available to other beings in the lake.
The solution? Buy land easements from farmers — many of whom cannot use the wet lowlands for farming most years — then plug up the ditches and encourage trees, marsh grasses and wetland amphibians and birds to reinhabit the wetland.
But it wasn’t that simple — the multi-step approach includes extensive permitting and planning, archaeological surveys of the area, and a great deal of labor to replace the persistent hay and agricultural grasses with native species.
“We all had different things we could contribute to that goal,” said Tucker. “NRCS had the bulk of the money to buy these easements. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the ability to do the designs for restoration work. The Clean and Clear program (through the Vermont ANR) was able to provide the outreach program. We’re able to divide and conquer easier than we did in the past.”
An influx of federal and state funding has furthered the wetland cause — including between $3 million and $6 million to the national NRCS wetland program for each year of the current federal Farm Bill, which runs from 2008 until 2010. Before the current Farm Bill, the wetland program received approximately $200,000 in federal funding per year.
This money goes directly to buying easements and funding the restoration process, which has allowed the NRCS to offer higher payments to landowners for the easements.
“The rates went up quite a bit,” said Moulaert. “It has the positive impact of attracting landowners.”
This has been helpful to the program, since for the most part, the NRCS is buying permanent easements on the land. Though the land still belongs to the landowner, the easement prevents the landowners from any future agricultural or development use. Tucker said that people often have trouble with the decision to convert their land to wetland, since it applies to all future generations.
“Forever’s a very long time,” he said.
Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt, owners of Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, last year sold a permanent easement to the NRCS on 50 acres of their land along the Otter Creek. That land, along with parcels from several of their neighbors, make up just one of the approximately 15 wetland restoration projects currently underway in Addison County.
Sessions said that the decision was a difficult one.
“We’re making the decision for generations to come,” she said. “We approached it with serious thought.”
Sessions said that in their ten years on the farm, the land had always been too wet to harvest anything on. After a great deal of research, the family decided that they could sell the easement and use it to buy a new hayer that would help them to more efficiently use the rest of their land.
“Economically, we could invest more in our farm, and environmentally it was the right thing to do,” said Sessions. “We’re enjoying being able to focus on the rest of our acreage, and we can still kayak (on the easement land).”
The 15 Addison County restoration projects, along with some 24 in Rutland County, make up parts of the 4,910 acres that the 2007 Lake Champlain Basin Wetland Restoration Plan identified in the Otter Creek subbasin. But though these projects are moving along, Tucker and Moulaert cautioned that the restoration would take a minimum of three years in any of the locations, and even then, improving the lake quality will not be immediate.
“The area that we’ve restored is going to immediately stop dropping less sediment out than it has in the past, which means less sediment is getting into the lake,” said Tucker. “It’s going to take a while for the lake to show improvement. But every little bit we do is going to help.”
Landowners interested in the wetland restoration program may contact April Moulaert for more information at [email protected], or at 802-864-2989.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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