Welcome to THE COMMONS — News and Views for Windham County, Vermont

Welcome to THE COMMONS — News and Views for Windham County, Vermont


DUMMERSTON—Thanks to community support and a successful inter-agency collaboration to preserve Windham County’s biodiversity, the nonprofit Green Mountain Conservancy (GMC) has added 627 acres to the Deer Run Nature Preserve, augmenting the 297 acres bought 18 months ago.

“It feels great, absolutely wonderful; we are absolutely delighted,” said Green Mountain Conservancy President Mary Ellen Copeland, calling the buy “a huge success.”

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful place,” she said. “There are some openings for power lines we have to put up with, and we hope some day we won’t need them, but the openings now make for some spectacular views. We can see forever from up there.”

The purchase this week “substantially increases” the preserve’s diversity of plants, animals, and habitats along the ridgeline property rising from the West River and straddling the towns of Dummerston, Brookline, and Newfane.

Additions to the preserve on this land include 2.5 miles of undeveloped shoreline of the West River, substantial grasslands managed for both wildlife and as feed hay, unique southern Appalachian broadleaf forests, nutrient-rich northern broadleaf forests, and nutrient-rich floodplain forests found only on a small number of rivers in Vermont.

The buy represents the completion of Phase 2 of the Conservancy’s plan to preserve acreage here.

“We had heard the Mercede family, who own West River Stables on River Road in Newfane, were divesting property as their father had died and the offspring were not interested in managing all of his Vermont holdings,” Copeland said. “They were very, very anxious to work with us.”

She refers to Nicholas Mercede, a Connecticut developer who died in 2018. The land, comprising the western side of the Putney Mountain ridge, offers a broad view from Route 30.

GMC worked with the family and other preservation organizations to raise $400,000 to buy the 627 acres.

“It’s a lot of money, and it showed that the community — there are a lot of major donors in the community, the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the Vermont Nature Conservancy — was really behind this,” Copeland said.

“The community really wants big areas of forested land left, conserved, in perpetuity, so it continues to sequester carbon, be a wildlife corridor, continue biodiversity — and so it’s there for the pleasure of people, as well,” she added.

While these groups made substantial donations to the cause, GMC had been planning numerous events to raise money. The group held one in February 2020 and then could not host more due to pandemic restrictions.

“We were kind of counting on events,” said Copeland. “But we had held a meeting in December 2019 that described the property in the Williamsville Town Hall, [where] 60 to 70 people attended and people were overwhelmingly supportive.”

BCTV also spread the word through broadcast and streaming of the meeting video, available to view on the GMC website.

GMC sent letters to community members, garnered media support, and ultimately also received monetary donations from a number of foundations, including the Windham, Wharton, and Fields Pond foundations and the Conservation Alliance.

In the 2020 first phase, the conservancy raised $223,000 to buy the 297-acre tract from the Wilson family, who had owned it for many years.

The land

Biologist Forrest M. Hammond of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has said the Deer Run tract offers “examples of almost every species of wildlife and plant life that we have in Vermont,” Copeland said.

The acreage includes 47 acres of “pristine field” and 2{1/2} miles of frontage on the West River.

“Because the river flows there, through flooding events over eons and when glaciers backed up, the Connecticut River water came way up the Valley and it made this very large, beautiful, flat place at the very bottom of the ridge with no access,” she said.

As one moves along the ridge, one sees topographic benches — flat areas on the hillside that deer favor — that were formed by glaciers.

The land also includes a landslide area and numerous vernal pools in addition to a number of forest communities, some “like parks” with sedges on the ground and hickory, hop hornbeam, red oak, and shagbark hickory trees.

“Having shagbark hickories is important because there are few in this area,” Copeland said. “This property is a place where the Southern and Northern forests come together, and shagbark hickories are not usual here. The northern long-eared bat likes to use those for their maternal nesting sites, so that’s nice.”

The Wilson family parcel of the Preserve was recently named as Windham County’s representative to the national Old-Growth Forest Network, a project that seeks to enumerate a confirmed or potential old-growth forest in every county in the country.

While technically not old-growth forest, the woods have not been heavily logged for at least 100 years, Copeland said. Some trees in the two parcels have survived the various clear-cuttings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the wetlands areas of the preserve, invasive species — plants from outside the natural habitat — are crowding out native plants. Last summer, Copeland said, four young people from Youth Services worked with a forester — GMC board member Dan Dubie — to begin the process of removing this growth from the area and replanting the site with native willow.

The trails

Home to many species of birds and rare botanicals, including the Canada lily, the Preserve is also a place for the public to enjoy.

Over the long term, Copeland said, GMC hopes to connect Deer Run trails with the Windham Hill Pinnacle Association’s trail network and the West River Trail.

Safeguarding this parcel and preserving its aesthetic value and recreational resources will not just help the environment, she said — it will also encourage tourism and support the local economy.

One trail is already open at the parking area at Camp Arden Road in West Dummerston. All the trails, which are being designed and cleared by amateur geologist Roger Haydock and other volunteers, will connect from there.

“He goes from ‘beauty spot to beauty spot,’ as he calls it,” said Copeland.

“The first thing I do is explore the terrain looking for possible trail routes and mark them with different colored ribbons, and I make a little map as I go,” Haydock explained. “Once I think I’ve pretty well exhausted the possibilities, I try to put together the best combination of them. At each decision point, because I’m making the better choice, when you put them all together you can’t help but come up with a better than average trail, at a minimum.”

On a piece of land like Deer Run, said Haydock, there are “a lot of pretty places,” and the land is often steep.

“So, if you’re trying to take a trail from the valley to higher terrain, for the trail to be less steep, it has to be a longer trail. You’re combining making it easier for the hiker as well as being able to visit more pretty places. It takes a lot of what’s called ‘side-hilling’ to turn the steepness of the slope into something comfortable for the hiker’s feet to walk on. We don’t want more than a 10-percent average grade, but sometimes you have to go higher,” he said.

“I try to solve for variety as a goal also on its own. And I always try to visit anything that’s pretty — hemlock woods, savannah, or an open, parklike spot,” he noted.

“The trail I’m working on now will go to the West River Valley along the meadow,” Haydock continued. “A portion of that trail will be open. There’s a deep ravine where I’m working now — I call it the ‘Grand Canyon.’”

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Haydock said he has to keep safety in mind as well, especially designing on ridges such as the one here, which is “close to absolutely vertical.”

Overall, however, Haydock said that unlike the Adirondacks, where some of the trails “are pretty hairy,” here the landscape “is pretty gentle.”

The Deer Run Trail is open, and he expects to open the Shoulder Trail in September.

“I think that’s what it will be called because, courtesy of the power line, the view is spectacular,” Haydock said.

Two more trails are also being planned to open in the next two years.

How it works, and looking forward

The way the preservation program works is that GMC owns the land but the Vermont Land Trust and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board own an instrument called an easement, which protects the land from development in perpetuity.

GMC pays up front for the easement and the other two groups watch the land and keep it protected over time. It’s a bit like buying an insurance policy.

Now that phases one and two have been completed, will there be a phase three?

“We’re not ready to talk about it yet,” said Copeland with a smile, saying only that “approaches have been made by people in other towns that want tracts conserved, so we’re beginning to think about if we might do that kind of thing.”

GMC started in 2008 to conserve land in Marlboro, then sold it with its easement to another organization and continued “doing related work.”

The group was relatively active for several years but reorganized when its board realized the need to conserve more land.

“The Conservancy is really anxious to have a corridor from the Connecticut River into the Green Mountain National Forest, and that’s a very-very-long-term goal,” Copeland said. “We’ve learned through our work how far the wildlife goes, how much area it needs on the landscape to survive, so we need many large tracts of land.”

VYCC Volunteer Day July 23

The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is planning a Volunteer Day on Friday, July 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Deer Run. The program is designed to introduce people ages 14–17 to the corps to help them decide if they want to enroll in a corps program in the future.

Participants will work with two Corps crew leaders to remove invasive buckthorn from the beginning of one of the Preserve’s trails. They will also learn more about the Youth Corps from the crew leaders and learn what participating in a Vermont Youth Conservation Corps program would be like.

The VYCC is modeled on a national Conservation Corps model that links the core methods of learning, service to community, and paying jobs for young people. Each year in Vermont, VYCC pays more than 250 young people ages 15-26 to perform hands-on work in farming and conservation projects in small crews across the state.

To participate, contact GMC at info@greenmountainconservancy.org or 802-257-0012.

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