As I hiked Haystack Mountain in Pawlet, Vermont yesterday, I was impressed with the amount of diversity preserved in just a small tract of land. The North Pawlet Hills Natural Area preserves a little over 1,000 acres, yet from the trail it is possible to observe a strikingly large number of distinct habitats. Part of this is undoubtedly because the elevation changes so drastically, but it is also noteworthy that the Nature Conservancy intentionally focused on the preservation of land of high conservation value.
The conservation movement, over the years, has made strides in putting high value lands in the public trust, but it has also been a strategy with limits. This is why land trusts are so valuable. Land trusts can step in to conserve parcels when there is not the political will to conserve the land in the public parks systems available.
When the government protects land, it protects lands that are valuable for recreation or for natural resources. Ecology is more often than not a secondary concern. The Forest Service manages forest resources for what it deems to be a sustainable timber harvest. In other words, a rate of timbering that does not degrade the forest in the long term. This is a useful strategy, seeing as we live in a society dependent on forest products. The Parks Service, on the other hand, manages lands for the recreational experience of National Park visitors. In the case of many of our previously wild parks, this has meant developing the kind of infrastructure that can handle the ever increasing (and under-educated in regards to leave-no-trace principles) visitorship. In both cases, governments have an anthropocentric management style, and this has resulted in a long term degradation of the resource, (barring the occasional, but rare wilderness area, where greater restrictions exist).
Even this anthropocentric management style has dried up in recent years. As budgets have become tighter, political will for conserving land has all but evaporated. This all during a time when the scientific community has raised concerns about biodiversity loss, due often to habitat fragmentation. As more land becomes developed for human interests, and the government fails to push back, land conservation has been left in a vacuum.
Fortunately, many non-profit land trusts have cropped up, in order to nickel and dime properties deemed to be of high conservation value, but often too small, or too lacking in recreational opportunities, to be of public interest. Often times, the trust will buy a tract in fee simple (meaning full ownership), but more often land trusts utilize scenic and conservation easements that spell out rights, restrictions and responsibilities of both the property owner as well as the land trust. Land trusts monitor the properties periodically to ensure the terms of the easement are met. Easements are backed by law, and there are legal ramifications for violating the agreed upon terms, however they are entered into voluntarily by private landowners interested in preserving their property for future generations.
This is not a great strategy for large land acquisitions, but it has worked, piece-meal, to make additions to conserved lands, or fill in the gaps that the government is not willing to. For instance, in the Essex Chain of Lakes acquisition, in the Adirondacks State Park in New York State, it was uncertain whether the Department of Environmental Conservation would have the resources necessary to take over the property, which had previously been held by the timber company Finch Prine. As it became clear that the paper company wanted out, the Nature Conservancy acquired the parcel in fee and then sold it at a discount to the State of New York for admittance into the Adirondack Park. This process took years, but the Nature Conservancy was able to identify a parcel with high conservation value, and protect it.
Haystack, similarly is a property with high conservation value. As one walks up the mountain, you start in a typical example of Northern Hardwoood Forest, along rolling terrain that varies from wet to mesic, and often consists of Rich Northern Hardwood forest matrix communities. These communities are dominated by Sugar Maple, Beech and Yellow Birch. There is one point in the beginning of the trail, where a wetland is visible, though it is unclear whether it is a bog, fen or swamp (from the trail). However, with wetlands being home to immense biodiversity, being providers of essential ecosystem services, and being highly productive ecosystems, it is clear the area is of high ecological value.
Through the lower forest, one can hear an incredible diversity of bird life. From canopy birds like the blue-headed vireo to the elusive hermit thrush, it is well worth stopping to take the varied calls in.
There is also great diversity in the understory, from the common witch hopple, blue cohosh, jack-in-the-pulpit, blue-bead lily, red trillium, cranesbill and various ferns, to the poisonous nightshade.
As the elevation picks up, the change from wet northern hardwod foorest to mesic oak habitat becomes clear. The southern exposure is dominated by northern red oak and white pine, as well as a wide array of understory shrubs and plants. The herbaceous layer, once dominated by jack-in-the-pulpit and blue-bead lily, and blue nightshade, is now taken over by foam flower and witch hopple. As the elevation rises, the understory becomes thinner and there are more hemlocks, though the dry southern exposures still contain oaks.
White oak trunk, surrounded by maple leaves.
At the summit, there is almost an alpine meadow. Here there is only a stunted canopy of Northern Red Oak. Here and there there are speckled alders, but mostly there is an abundance of alpine bilberry, three-toothed cinquefoil and pale corydalis. There area few sedges lining the rocky escarpments, but the soil is very thin and dry at the peaks.
View from the summit of Haystack, Mt, Pawlet, Vt.
Just in the course of an hour, the trail traverses this entire diversity.
It is clear that the Nature Conservancy considered recreational value to the community in preserving the North Pawlet Hills property. However, the biodiversity preserved on the property is extensive, and provides an oasis of habitat for species that might otherwise be threatened by fragmentation, caused by extensive farming in the region. For its size, the preserve accomplishes a lot of positive goals.
There can often be public confusion at the decision of a land trust to preserve properties with low recreational value, as is the case with the Natural Lands Trust’s preservation of wetlands in western New Jersey. However, when you consider that the protected worm-eating warbler utilizes this habitat for nesting, and the wetlands are home to plants that are rare and endangered in the state, it becomes clear that the land has high conservation value. However organizations like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference have been clamoring for more access and the right to build extensive trail improvements for the Highlands Trail through these habitats. Many in the hiking community cannot see why there is resistance from the land trust. However, this lays bare the argument in favor of protecting lands through the use of land trusts. The mission of the Natural Lands Trust is to preserve biodiversity, not improve recreational opportunities or garner public interest. Thus, land trusts such as this have the ability to resist public pressure, in order to do the right thing ecologically.
The benefits of land trusts are many. While sometimes those benefits align with public interest, often times they are able to take a longer view, for the purpose of serving the greater good. As the will to preserve large tracts of land continues to dissipate, it will become increasingly important to ensure the resources are available to protect the smaller habitat corridors, that enable extensive ecosystems like the north woods to function.