By Julia Purdy
FAIR HAVEN—On Sunday, Jan. 7, Castleton Library’s popular monthly Science Pub featured an illustrated talk, “Wetlands Restoration Along Otter Creek,” by James Eikenberry, wetlands specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The venue was the large dining room in the Fair Haven Inn, where an atentive audience heard about wetlands and their preservation or remediation in the Otter Creek watershed.
Eikenberry eased into a sometimes technical subject matter with a slide of a turtle peering up at the camera lens. He chose the turtle because it’s a target species for wetland restoration, a topic that he acknowledged elicits passionate opinions on both sides.
Asking the crowd what they think of when hearing the term “wetland,” he heard “swamp,” “cattails,” “marsh,” “trees” and “standing water.” He then gave a simple definition: land that stays wet for at least a two-week period.
Between 1780 and 1980, he said, Vermont lost 35 percent of its wetlands, ending up with about 220,000 acres of wetland at the end of that time. He explained the history: up until the mid-20th century, wetlands were routinely drained and filled to support both agriculture and development. Some old ditches are dubbed “schoolbus ditches,” he said, because they are deep and wide enough to hide a schoolbus.
As a result, wetland-dependent bird populations declined, according to the State of the Birds Report prepared for national Farm Bill legislation each year.
“We’re now at a time where we value wetlands for many different reasons,” Eikenberry said. Wetlands assist in meeting many desirable social goals: floodwater storage, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and “carbon sequestration,” when organic matter decomposes and remains in the soil rather than being released into the atmosphere. Wetlands are “natural nurseries” for fish, he said, which in turn consume quantities of mosquito larvae.
He explained that wetlands restoration attempts to reverse the effects of losing wetlands.
“Do you really get back what you wanted to have?” he asked rhetorically. His answer was that the “Field of Dreams” hypothesis is embraced among scientists: what existed before does eventually return and stabilize, and species stop declining.
Still, he emphasized that restored wetlands take a long time to recover completely, and preserving existing wetlands is the better option. “Just because you had something in the past doesn’t mean you can recreate it in the future,” he cautioned.
As an illustration, Eikenberry projected before-and-after slides of a cornfield along Otter Creek in Leicester, near Middlebury. The farmer, who was getting older, had decided to scale back his operation and offered the cornfield – a former wetland – as a candidate for restoration. Long ago a berm had been created along Otter Creek to prevent seasonal flooding into the field. When the berm was breached, Otter Creek once again spread out into the field, and eventually the large variety of grasses, shrubs and trees returned in a lush tapestry.
Otter Creek – at about 112 miles the longest river in Vermont, draining 1,100 square miles – is actually a more or less continuous swamp, Eikenberry said, “well-connected to its flood plain.”
This feature is important for connectivity between large, unspoiled areas for wildlife’s freedom of movement in seeking habitat, food sources, and breeding territories. Eikenberry referenced the Staying Connected Initiative that coordinates activities to preserve wildlife corridors across the northern forests from New York and Vermont into Canada.
When asked whether there are recommendations to towns for wetland conservation, he noted that Staying Connected is available to consult with towns to incorporate wetland conservation into their town plans.
He projected images from game cameras positioned at exposed open fields and “pinch points” such as road crossings and culverts, where bobcat, otter, bear, and coyote have been recorded.
The USDA currently has 4,000 acres enrolled in its Vermont wetland conservation easement program, with 3,000 of those acres along Otter Creek.
Eikenberry referred several times to competing values and goals. He acknowledged that farmers have to make a living, and said that continued draining of farmland is sometimes grandfathered. When asked if the placement of solar arrays conflicts with wetland restoration programs, he referred to the state wetlands program within the Department of Environmental Conservation, which promulgates and updates comprehensive wetlands rules.
Another example of how values influence solutions is in eradication of invasive plants. While some people object to the use of herbicides, pulling by hand is arduous and ineffective, he said. He said the USDA uses herbicides “judiciously.”
“It really is wetter than it used to be,” he said, citing the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which compared the baseline period 1901-1960 to 2001-2012 for total precipitation.
In response to a question about what to expect in the 2018 Farm Bill, Eikenberry said, in effect, who knows?