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Posts Tagged ‘Vermont’

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For the past six months I have been working on a “sustainable,” organic sugar bush. In that time I have seen a number of impacts, which seem like a necessary consequence of our activities, that certainly appear to impact the landscape. However, the industry maintains that when tapping is done right, the impact to the trees should be negligible and the woods should be preserved. In fact, one of the aspects my company brags about, is that the woods have been preserved from logging and development. While clearing the woods for logging or development may be more obviously impactful, there are still aspects of the process which should be more deeply investigated before we can call the industry sustainable.

 

The first (and probably most noticeable) impact which should be examined is the use of plastic piping to convey the sap down the mountain. Best practices suggest that the 5/16″ lateral lines be replaced every five years, drop lines every three to five years and one inch branches every ten to fifteen years. The plastic can sometimes be melted down and reused, but it is uncommon to see recycling of these materials on a large scale as of yet. Considering that we’ve used tens of thousands of feet of one inch piping and possibly hundreds of thousands of feet of 5/16″ lateral line, we are certainly creating untold tons of plastic waste, every few years. The University of Vermont claims that as many as 88 tons of maple tubing are replaced in the Vermont woods, per year, as of 2009. This number is surely higher by now, given that there are many more large producers taking up residence in the state. UVM then predicted that sugarmakers would make progress in recycling in the years to follow, and they have, but to what degree is not yet clear, and there is certainly still a large amount of waste being produced.

 

Waste is not the only question raised, when we consider sustainability in this industry. There is also the question of tree health. The industry claims that when tapped properly, sugaring should have no negative impact to the health of the tree, or at least negligible impact. Producers have been using smaller tap sizes to reduce the amount of dead transport wood created in the tree, but they have also started using vacuum systems to create a pressure differential, tricking trees into thinking their is higher atmospheric pressure, and thus that it is an appropriate time for sap to run. The impacts of vacuum are still an open question, as far as how trees are impacted. On a basic level, the vacuum has allowed syrup producers to collect more sap per tap. This alone should be a red flag. Trees use the sap we wish to collect to build new structures each spring. This includes the leaves needed to photosynthesize and reproductive organs. The greater the sap we succeed in pulling from the tree, the less it has for itself. While research done by UVM would suggest that there are no known impacts, it seems obvious that there must be at least some detrimental effects, and that perhaps we just aren’t seeing them yet.

 

Furthermore, there is the open question as to whether the scarring is expanded by draining more of the tree’s transport wood. In experiments conducted by UVM, the trees subjected vacuum did not show statistically significant impacts, compared to those tapped with gravity. I would consider the results of the 2007 study to be inconclusive and requiring further investigation. I would hypothesize that trees subjected to multiple years of 25″ Hg of vacuum would show advanced scarring, compared to gravity taps of the same size, but there is no available data yet.

 

Finally, sugar bushes fragment habitat, in woodlands considered by the companies tapping maple trees to be “conserved.” The larger the sugarbush, the more infrastructure and development is necessary to get the sap out. First roads are needed to make the installation possible. Second, branches are often cleared of brush to make the installation of one inch pipe and main lines easier. The installation of tubing further fragments the woods. Many involved in the installation of sugaring infrastructure anecdotally claim the impacts on wildlife to be negligible, but this seems highly unlikely. The use of noisy machinery like chainsaws and ATVs disturb wildlife and often chase them from the immediate area. The infrastructure installation fragments the areas where animals need contiguous habitat to range.

 

Study has been done on how sugarbush management compares with biodiversity management standards. However, there seems to be an open research question in verifying whether the practices in use are, in fact, impacting habitat. Simply using observed control species-area relationships vs. experimental species area relationships on sugarbushes could help to answer this question.

 

While the industry continues to claim it is operating in an environmentally sustainable manner, I feel there are many open research questions that need to be resolved before we can use the term sustainable. My hope is that research institutions like UVM will continue to investigate these questions, and that best practices can be improved within the industry. It will take cooperation between the private industry, research institution and governmental regulatory agencies to advance the cause of sustainability.

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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.

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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.

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pale corydalis

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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.

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A thicket of Japanese knotweed. Citation: Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, www.invasives.org

A thicket of Japanese knotweed. Citation: Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, http://www.invasives.org

 

Fallopia Japonica – known commonly to the conservation community as Japanese Knotweed is an invasive riparian zone plant. Infestations of knotweed typically invade disturbed areas along streams and rivers and can quickly become overwhelming. What is more, the extensive underground root network make complete irradiation quite a task. Knotweed infestations are notorious for taking numerous years of persistent efforts to control.

 

Not only is knotweed difficult to control once it gains a foothold, it is finding an easier route to gaining a foothold in recent years, especially in the north country, where washouts have been occurring with greater frequency than ever before. As more and more of the region has become developed, farm fields, roads and other structures have come to abut with the water’s edge, removing critical riparian habitat. Furthermore, when the streams overflow their banks, they often carry the plant material away from the edge, as soil erodes in the turbulent waters.

 

Riparian buffers are critical habitat. For one, riparian root systems help to hold stream banks together during minor floods, and create a protective buffer for the more flood sensitive habitat beyond the flood plain. Knotweed, on the other hand, does little to hold banks together, and promotes erosion of stream banks to a much greater degree than our native riparian plants. Once erosion occurs, the most likely plant to return to the bank is the knotweed, (which in many cases exacerbated damaging floods in the first place).

 

The other important role for riparian habitat is that it helps to filter pollutants out of runoff, before they enter the water supply. This is a critical role in the Champlain Valley, where agricultural runoff is a huge problem.

 

In recent years, Lake Champlain has seen beach closures, and increased monitoring of drinking water intakes, due to blue-green algae blooms. The lake often sees elevated levels of the cyanobacteria, which can cause skin irritations, liver damage and neural tissue damage. The algae blooms are common on all larger bodies of water, but particularly in Lake Champlain the algae is aided by phosphorus in agricultural runoff.

 

In other watersheds, such as that of the Delaware Bay or the Gulf of Mexico, similar problems with agricultural runoff have led to agal blooms sucking oxygen out of the water, leading to oceanic dead zones, where fish life cannot survive. This may end up being the fate of Lake Champlain, if the algal blooms cannot be reigned in.

 

The issue illustrates the interconnectedness of watersheds. Extensive knotweed infestations upstream aid the entrance of agricultural fertilizers into the lake waters, by impacting the riparian buffer areas. To solve the algae problems, you have to solve the problem of disappearing riparian buffers and thus the infestations of knotweed. While a stream side infestation may not seem like a problem worth tackling aggressively, it affects both human health and the ecosystem health downstream. This is just one example of why it is immensely important to protect the ecosystem services provided to our watersheds by the healthy functioning of riparian buffers.

 

The easiest defense against knotweed is prevention. For farmers, this involves developing realistic buffers, rather than planting or grazing cattle up to the water’s edge. These buffers, once in place, also provide crop protection, on top of helping to outcompete aggressive knotweed infestations. Roads should also be planned to include a buffer area. Often times, in Vermont especially, roads are placed in stream valleys because it is the easiest, latest place for a road. However, as recent floods have shown, these sections of road often washout in floods, and are costly to repair. It is better, then, to take on the initial building expense, and build the roads in more sustainable locations, with hydrology better accounted for. Since riparian zones help to stabilize banks, this can also help to protect the roads from the periodic washouts.

 

As climate changes, and we see more and more deluges washing out the north country, it is ever more important to develop protective buffers that realistically consider the changing nature of streams. Flood plains and ephemeral wetlands need to be better accounted for, so that the floods that do occur will be less devastating to infrastructure.

 

If these best practices are more widely instituted, we will found ourselves more prepared for what is inevitable.

 

 

http://healthvermont.gov/enviro/bg_algae/weekly_status.aspx

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2015/07/14/warm-spell-triggers-cyanobacteria-alerts-in-lake-champlain/30131655/

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/deadzone.html

 

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This past summer, I have served as the Caretaker at Statton Pond, on the Long Trail. In retrospect, caretaking leaves me with mixed feelings. While on one hand, Stratton Pond is a truly beautiful place, while on the other hand it is also a high use sight, which is constantly suffering from human impacts. Furthermore, being the first pay site along the Appalachian Trail, revealed some of the uglier side of a culture, most see externally and thus superficially.

Many people I met this year extolled the virtues of caretaking, and often asked me what it takes to get such a position. The true answer to such a question, is a willingness to shovel human waste from composting privies. One day on such a task and the true thanklessness of the position is revealed. But, it is not my purpose to bemoan the woes of a caretaker, though they are many and often invisible. Rather, I propose to reveal an essential question about the nature of caretaker programs across the Appalachian Trail, and whether they are useful.

I will be criticized, I am sure, for even raising the question. Metrics will be pointed to as signs of improvement, but such offerings miss the point. While the caretaker programs in New England have certainly helped to mitigate negative use (usually by charging a fee), it has not eliminated it in one place without displacing it to another. As such, one place improves at another’s expense, as can be seen at sites like Stratton Pond. Negative use, which used to be reserved for the shores of the pond, have no spread out across “stealth” camping sites through the Lye Brook Wilderness, and signs of inappropriate use are now readily apparent at both Story Spring and Spruce Peak shelters–the two nearest non-pay sites. New fire rings are built with a consistency that cannot be kept up with by an individual responsible for 26 miles of trail, 3 composting privies and 4 shelters already. Soil compaction is now expanding beyond the pond area, and into the wilderness section, which the trail traverses. Vegetation no long grows on any flat spot, which a thru-hiker throws down and pioneers for all subsequent hikers.

This begs an interesting question, beyond the obvious one. Obviously there is an aspect of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Less obviously, perhaps, we must ask whether having a caretaker contributes to a culture of irresponsibility, now pervasive on the trail. By having caretakers present, we are implicitly telling hikers that they are not solely responsible for the state of the wild lands. Many a thru-hiker felt compelled to extol the ecological virtues of the culture, but any casual observer would wonder otherwise. Rare was a day I did not find mountain house meals strewn about my shelter, along my trail, in my privies. When confronted, thru-hikers will claim, “we are not responsible, we know better.” This was often said with a readiness to come to the defense of their fellow hikers. “It is most likely day hikers,” they’d say. Yet, what purpose would there be for a day hiker to carry about a mountain house meal in the first place. The prevailing mentality amongst hikers is that they, the protectors of the trail, cannot have come 2,000 miles by failing to follow ecological principles… They can do no wrong, and will hear nothing of such accusations… “Why should we pay a fee?” They ask. “It is the day hikers who impact this area.”

What is behind this sense of entitlement? We as trail professionals have not done anything to correct bad behaviors, which through time and habit, become entrenched. The caretaker is assumed to be taking care of everything, from trash to medical emergencies… Our presence has become a convenient excuse.

I do not claim to have a good answer for this problem. After many years amongst the trail’s culture, I have come to believe that the only answer for many of these problems is to increase law enforcement presence. But, sadly, the protection of wilderness is not profitable and thus not a priority. In the absence of consequences, we, the recreators, have taken the place of industrial interests, as the destroyers of the wilderness… As was claimed once, we are loving our parks and forests to death. The only answer going forward is rationing and enforcement. That, or we shall all pay for the misdoings of the few… We shall all suffer the degraded quality of the resource… We will have the consequence of watching the disappearance of that which we loved.

There is a time and a place for caretakers. There is infrastructure that must be maintained, in the context of concentrating use, but it must come to pass that the individual bears no responsibility for what belongs to all of us. Perhaps it is time for the shelters and privies to go, and to ban camping altogether in certain areas. If it is the human element, which is responsible for the degradation, as is now clearly the case, then it is the human element that must be removed, in order to repair what has been done…

All summer, I stood by a pond whose bank is eroding into the water, so long has the vegetation buffer zone been damaged or destroyed. There is nothing to hold the soil to the rocks. Each year, 2000 thru-hikers will pass by the pond, many of whom feel inclined to swim and bathe in the water. Each foot the stamps along those banks, compacts and erodes. Each body introduces chemicals to the glacial pool, which for thousands of years were never present. The fish population is in decline, there is only one loon… And yet more and more people flock to the pond… I was asked by a Princeton student, part of a freshman orientation, why we do not allow motor sports on the pond, such is what the culture we live in has decided would be the best fate of wild places.

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Yet, not far from Stratton is Bourne pond. A pond once impacted by its proximity to the Appalachian Tail and the Long Trail. Now, the bank is restoring itself, and the vegetation restricts access… It is a pond in recovery. In the heart of the Lye Brook Wilderness, it is not impossible to reach, but it is difficult enough that it is preventative. Perhaps all such places should, be difficult. Perhaps we should be forced to keep our distance, they way we’re told not to touch the Mona Lisa, knowing that depriving ourselves the pleasure, is ensuring the entire community of earth’s life will continue to have the pleasure… In closing, I give the link to an article I wrote for the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail News. An article which the club expressed concern about, because it was too extollant of the virtues of wilderness. Wilderness, I was told, is not in the interests of the club, which concerns itself with the recreational experience… To me, these seemed an irrational claim… Wilderness, to me, is the highest iteration of what a wild land can achieve. By legal definition, it is a place where man is only a visitor, who does not remain… Where the land and its community of life are untrammeled by man.

The club ran my article, on the final page of the Long Trail News, and though much amended, I believe my goal was achieved, even if subversively. I hope that the reader will see my point, and that my preface here will shed light on that purpose…

Without further ado, here is the link to the Fall 2014 issue of the Long Trail News, containing my article on the Lye Brook Wilderness, as it pertains to the Long Trail experience…

Long Trail News

#longtrail #appalachiantrail #strattonpond #lyebrookwilderness #wildernessact #greenmountainnationalforest #greenmountains #vermont

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