By Lee J. Kahrs
BRANDON — “I have a simple thesis. If you restore it, they will come.”
With that thought, Rutland County Audubon Society Co-President Roy Pilcher summed up Friday’s preservation of 500 acres of wetland at the former Dean Farm on Union Street in Brandon.
Owners Lyn and Jim Des Marais have sold an easement of 500 acres of their land along the Otter Creek to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. It is Vermont’s largest wetland easement and protects the land in perpetuity from development or alteration of any kind.
It was a perfect June day for Friday’s ceremony in the Des Marais’ backyard. Roughly 40 attendees sat under blue skies in a cool breeze overlooking a marsh along the Otter Creek teaming with life as state and federal officials took turns thanking the Des Maraises for preserving such a large parcel of their 1,250-acre property.
“This is a day of celebration,” said master of ceremonies Vicky Drew, Vermont state conservationist of the NRCS. “We are in one of the most beautiful places in Vermont, and it is really a joy for me to be here. It takes a truly committed landowner to say they want to conserve this land for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
The Des Maraises enrolled their wetlands into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program with the NRCS. The Wetlands Reserve Easement component of program offers financial and technical assistance to landowners who want to voluntarily restore and protect wetlands.
And while the Des Maraises were heralded throughout the ceremony for their generosity in preserving the acreage, so, too, was Vermont NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Sally Eugair of Pittsford. Eugair has earned the nickname “The Wetlands Queen” for her efforts to secure more than 2,148 acres of restored and permanently protected wetlands along Otter Creek in Rutland County in recent years.
More than 250 acres of the Des Marais wetland will be restored back to original hydrologic conditions. Ditches and berms created decades ago in order to divert runoff and farm the land will be removed, allowing the wetland to flood naturally as the creek rises. By doing so, many different species of birds fish and wildlife will use the enhanced habitat and flourish.
The proof is in the preservation. Retired dairy farmer and former Pittsford resident Edward “Babe” Pomainville started working with the NRCS in 2003 to conserve 356 acres of his former farm. Now, the Pomainville Wildlife Management Area is being hailed as a success story, as bird and fish species have returned to the area. It is also credited with preventing the flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 from being even worse downstream along the Otter Creek.
The Des Marais easement will now be added to the 2,148 acres already preserved with NRCS easements along the Otter Creek between Rutland and Middlebury.
The landowners retain ownership but essentially give up all development rights to the land once the easement is sold. The landowner retains all hunting and fishing rights, but no structures, including hunting blinds, may be built on the land. The NRCS pays 100 percent of any restoration costs, and the landowner retains title to the land, which is protected forever from development or sale.
An easy decision
When Lyn Des Marais first laid eyes on the Dean Farm 23 years ago, she was instantly smitten. The Massachusetts native was dating now-husband Jim, who is from Killington, and was visiting the Brandon-Lake Dunmore area for the first time.
“I didn’t have anything,” Des Marais said. “It was a far off dream that some day I could own this piece of land.”
Jump to five years ago, when the farm was up for sale again. “I said to myself, ‘Give it up. It’s never going to happen,’” Des Marais revealed.
But then, the seller dropped the price, and the Des Maraises put in an offer. Unfortunately, the farm sold to another buyer … but the sale fell through, and in 2013, Lyn Des Marais saw her dream of owning the Dean Farm come true.
“And I’m still pinching myself,” she said Friday after the easement ceremony.
Sally Eugair said she had been trying to save the wetlands on the farm since 1999, but the previous landowners kept turning her down.
Then last year, Des Marais heard about the NRCS easement program through neighbor Allan Leavitt and local birder and friend Sue Wetmore, who got Des Marais in touch with Eugair.
“I thought, ‘This makes so much sense,’” Des Marais said. “Why wouldn’t you do it? Jim and I just wanted to give back.”
During the ceremony, a huge Great Blue Heron took off from the marsh and made a sweeping turn over the yard heading southeast, a fitting send off.