The largest conservation project in Vermont was completed in 1999 when more than 132,000 acres of forestland were purchased and conserved.
The land is located in 14 Northeast Kingdom towns (see map). Today the forestland provides recreational opportunities, and supports wildlife and the local timber industry.
To purchase and conserve the land, a partnership of public and private entities came together. These were: The Conservation Fund, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy of Vermont.
The land had been previously owned by Champion International Paper Company, which had heavily harvested the forest prior to selling the property.
As part of the project, 26,000 acres were added to the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.
And, 22,000 acres were transferred to the State of Vermont to create the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This area is managed by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, with conservation and public access easements held by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and The Nature Conservancy.
The majority of the Champion lands in Vermont, some 84,000 acres, were bought by Essex Timber Company. The company retained ownership and managed the land with a commitment to sustainable forestry until 2008. At that point, the land was sold to Plum Creek Timber Company, the largest private landowner in the United States.
These privately owned lands will continue to be protected by a working forest conservation easement held by the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation board, and traditional uses will be maintained through a public access easement held by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
The Champion property contains nearly 90 percent of the Nulhegan River watershed, 30 miles of the Nulhegan River and its major tributaries, 11 miles of Paul Stream, and three miles of Moose River.
The property encompasses the complete shoreline of 15 lakes and ponds. There are 26 Natural Heritage Sites with endangered, threatened and rare species and/or communities.
The Nulhegan Basin and Yellow Bogs on Champion lands have some of the richest natural diversity in Vermont.
The basin and its watershed support 16 rare or exemplary natural communities, provide one of the most important breeding habitats for migratory songbirds in the Northeast, and furnish a home to the only viable Vermont population of the threatened spruce grouse.
The area is also home to two rare mammal species: the rock vole and southern bog lemming, and a wide range of large mammals including moose, deer, black bear, and bobcat and other northern native species.
The conservation and public access easements on this land provide perpetual public access for traditional uses such as hunting, trapping, fishing, horseback riding, bird watching, hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
This land is intensively used for snowmobiling in the winter. The Vermont Association of Snowtravelers (VAST) maintains more than 400 miles of designated trails on Champion roads, or about 10% of their statewide trail system.
Such a large-scale conservation effort could not have happened without a strong partnership.
The purchase price of the Vermont Champion Land was $26.5 million. After being chosen as the successful bidder, The Conservation Fund worked with the Vermont Land Trust to secure financing for the project before the closing date.
Funding came from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Freeman Foundation, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (through a special appropriation by the Vermont Legislature), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North American Wetland Conservation Act, and other individuals and foundations.
The sale of approximately 84,000 acres of the land to Essex Timber, LLC also helped to finance the project.
The Vermont Land Trust played a major role in developing a public access and recreation plan for the land. And, The Nature Conservancy conducted an ecological analysis that guided the project.
The magnitude of this effort and diversity of the partnership are testaments to the power of conservation to bring groups together and establish widespread, lasting environmental protection.
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