From our Fall 2014 Newsletter
By Will Lindner
Residents of southwestern Vermont, who have skated on Lake Paran in Shaftsbury in the winter, have swum in its cool waters in the summertime, and held weddings and picnics in its lakeside pavilion, almost lost a large portion of the shoreline to development back in 2004.
“I was at Lake Paran one day and overheard people talking about a parcel of land that was going to get sold,” says VLT’s Donald Campbell. “It turned out to be everything you could see, a big, natural stretch of land bordering the lake.”
“It was not an idle threat,” says Rob Woolmington, who is president of the Fund for North Bennington, Inc. (FNB), a nonprofit engaged in land conservation and other ventures that provide recreational, social, and educational benefits to the town. “The owner had permits for the project. It would have changed the character of the lake completely.”
Donald, who had skated there in his childhood, set out to find a solution, and his cause was aided when the property was purchased by a forester who was receptive to partial conservation. Simultaneously other land was added to this project through a helpful neighbor and a community group. Donald kept everyone engaged and VLT secured a grant from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board that enabled the FNB to purchase 55 acres with 3,000 feet of lake frontage. An easement permanently protects the trails connecting the beach to the conserved land surrounding much of the lake.
“When conservation allows something to remain as it’s been for centuries, it doesn’t draw attention,” Donald observes. “A lovely place that everyone enjoys stayed the way it’s always been, and now will remain that way.”
Whether it be hiking, hunting, or boating, getting out on the land is a true Vermont tradition. In recent decades, however, parcels of land have become smaller and posting has become more common.
An important part of VLT’s work is to create opportunities for people to experience conservation firsthand and to ensure that these places will be permanently available for recreation. These properties are wide-ranging: a ballfield in Starksboro, a sledding hill in Underhill, a picturesque pond in Peacham, a large tract of ski trails in Bolton, and a vast 26,000-acre wilderness in the northern Green Mountains.
While most VLT-conserved land is privately held (it is up to individual landowners whether they allow access to the land) around 20 percent of VLT’s conservation projects have explicit protection for recreation and public access. The provisions have been granted by many private landowners, while some were the product of communities organizing, such as what happened at Lake Paran. And, others have been turned over to public ownership as public resources.
Chris Pratt, who owns 481 acres of conserved land in East Montpelier, strongly supports public access on conserved land. Primarily, people access Chris’s land via the East Montpelier Trail network, whose construction—through grants and local volunteers—got underway in the 1990s.
“It’s been a delightful, lifelong commitment,” said Nona Estrin, who helped found the volunteer group in 1992. They are three-quarters of the way toward their goal of completing 12 miles of trails that form an arc across East Montpelier. The group is also working to link the East Montpelier Trails to the Cross Vermont Trail, North Branch Nature Center, and Hubbard Park trails in Montpelier—which, if successful, would form a 17-mile loop through both communities.
Nona remembers the community process that launched the trail: “We decided we didn’t want to lose our farms. We decided we wanted people to be able to go out the door and go hiking.” The early organizers rallied walkers, skiers, snowmobilers, and nature enthusiasts to join together toward this common goal. The trail passes through sugarbushes, working farms, serene woodlands, and seven properties conserved with VLT.
But visitors to Chris’s conserved parcel needn’t just stick to the trail. His conservation easement provides “dispersed public access,” which means that people can wander about as they choose. This is something he welcomes. I’m continually surprised at how well everyone works together,” he says. “There’s a lot of good will; we all have the same basic goals.” Chris cherishes the mix of people he finds there: hikers; wildlife enthusiasts; swimmers at the confluence of Mallory and Bennett brooks; winter snowmobilers who use the VAST trail system; youthful international volunteers who participate in a summer trail-maintenance program; and hunters (the Town of East Montpelier, which contributed to Chris’s conservation costs, holds a lottery for hunting permits annually on his land).
Recreation has also been a focus of VLT’s work to help towns create town forests. To date, VLT has worked with communities to create 17 of these forests. These tracts are timber and recreational resources that serve a wide audience, much like Chris’s land in East Montpelier.
The Sterling Forest is one such forest. The 1,500-acre parcel, owned by the Town of Stowe, lies between 1,700 feet and 2,400 feet in elevation. The land was privately held until the mid-90s, when talk circulated that the owner wanted to develop it. Townspeople were concerned, and Stowe resident Gar Anderson, who became a member of the Conservation Commission, worked with the municipality, the owner, and VLT to find common ground.
In 1995 VLT purchased 2,500 acres, with funding from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and the Freeman Foundation, then sold the 1,500 acres that became Sterling Forest to the Town. Five hundred high-elevation acres were added to Mount Mansfield State Forest and three smaller properties were sold to individuals. VLT’s conservation easements applied throughout.
The forest has it all: hiking, both on town trails and a segment of the Catamount Trail; snowshoeing; cross-country skiing; mountain biking; hunting; and snowmobiling on VAST trails (the only motorized recreation permitted). There seems to be no end of great ideas unfolding in the forest. In 2013 a committee identified 11 old cellar holes and built interpretive panels at each site. What many people comment about, however, is the symbiotic relationship between loggers and mountain bikers on this conserved land.
“We started a three-phase timber-harvest plan around 2001,” says town Planning Director Tom Jackman. “We had trails that were not in such great shape anymore; there had been lots of erosion and deterioration.” Designed by forester Michael Snyder (who has since become Vermont’s Commissioner of Forests, Parks & Recreation), harvesting has helped finance some $100,000 of trail improvements in the town forest. “Michael was particularly involved with phase two,” explains Tom, “where we logged and built a new mountain biking trail at the same time. It was a demonstration project to show how timber management can coexist with recreational uses. It worked out great both ways.”
The third phase of the logging plan will create a new ‘Foresters for the Birds’ project, designed with Audubon Vermont and VLT forester Dan Kilborn, to improve the forest habitat for more than 24 species found there. Meanwhile, the Stowe Mountain Bike Club features Sterling Forest in its brochure, and the Town of Stowe has proudly added the forest to its long list of attractions.
Yet even in remote and lesser-known locations, conserved lands of all descriptions are doing their job for Vermonters: inviting them in, intriguing them, and reminding them that a day spent in nature is never a wasted day. We invite you to learn more about conserved land that offers recreational opportunities. We’ve listed a few here, but also check out our new recreation map at www.vlt.org/recreation.
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