Opinion: Local climate solution built on climate mistake
Jeff Howarth is Associate Professor of Geography at Middlebury College.
I am a geographer who enjoys looking at maps and air photos to see how places have changed in the past as a way of thinking about how they could change in the future.
One of the maps I have been looking at lately shows the southwestern corner of Middlebury circa 1920. Drawn by the U.S. Geological Survey, the map includes the site just off of South Street Extension that Middlebury College and Encore Energy in 2019 selected to develop a new solar energy facility that is now in the final stages of permitting. On the old map, wetlands cover much of this site, reaching across South Street Extension. Trees also appear to extend further north than they do today.
The map reminds us that Middlebury College and Encore Energy chose a site to develop on South Street Extension that was once part of the Otter Creek wetlands, a large complex of many different types of wetland natural communities. On the old map, the wetland crossing South Street Extension connects to the Middlebury Swamp. The soils here suggest it was likely what remained of a Valley Clayplain Forest natural community, which likely covered about 40% of land within town boundaries when Middlebury was founded. Most of this natural community has been altered for agriculture and development. Soils that were too wet for agriculture were often the last to be converted, which may be why we can still see this late remnant on the map. Today, what remains of this community throughout the Champlain Valley is so badly fragmented and isolated that ecologists believe long-term conservation will require restoration of some agricultural land.
Air photos of South Street Extension taken after 1920 document the systematic alteration of the clayplain wetlands to make way for agriculture. One of the last ditches constructed here received a permit in 1993. It was intended to be a 2,000-foot by 20-foot ditch along the boundary between the agricultural fields and what was by then the northern boundary of the Middlebury Swamp that would carry water northward towards Otter Creek. Only a portion of the ditch was completed, however, and it appears to have cut off the swamp from flowing north. Aerial photos taken a few years after the project was abandoned show water beginning to pond along Morse Road. They also show a large stand of trees beginning to die in the swamp forest on the north side of the road, killed by a rise in the water level.
These changes in the land point to a troubling contradiction on South Street Extension. In order to do something about environmental change caused by humans at a global scale in the future, we must ignore environmental changes caused by people locally in the recent past. To develop the site, Middlebury College and Encore Energy need the services of the ditches that were constructed in the last 100 years to drain the land. They will also need to keep trees off the site and prevent the forest from recovering northwards of the Middlebury Swamp. As a result, we haven chosen a path for responding to human impacts on the global environment that requires us to perpetuate human impacts to the natural environment locally.
At best, this is a missed opportunity to find a solution to Middlebury College’s energy goals that connects climate change planning with justice for natural communities in Middlebury and Vermont. Of greater concern is that it frames historical impacts to natural communities as unconnected and less important than developing land for energy production, which could have long-term impacts to how Middlebury changes in the future.
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