By Mike Polhamus, VTDigger
A national wildlife refuge with around 26,000 acres in Essex County could expand dramatically over the coming decades, according to a long-range plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now in its final stages.
The move won’t happen overnight, federal forest managers say — what the plan envisions will occur over decades, as landowners choose to sell parcels to the federal government.
The plan is lengthy, technical and comprehensive.
Andrew French, project leader for the national wildlife service’s Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge said that’s in part because “it’s been 10 years in the making.” But the plan is accessible so that readers can find information about affected locations, French said.
The refuge in its entirety spans four states — Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire — and encompasses 37,000 acres over 22 separate parcels.
The plan, which is known in Fish and Wildlife Service parlance as a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, contemplates expansion of that area to around 197,000 acres throughout the Connecticut River watershed.
The expansion will take place slowly, and perhaps in some form other than what the plan describes, French said.
“It’s a road map for a journey that’s going to take many decades,” he said. Should state, local and federal stakeholders agree they want to change the plan along the way, French said, emendations will require a public process.
Sales of affected land to the federal government will be strictly voluntary, French said. The plan has already received comments about the federal government allegedly seizing landowners’ property.
“People were concerned their land would be taken from them, and that’s not going to happen. That’s not how we operate. We like to be able to stand on our record, and we have a very good record. We’re not going to take land from anybody,” French continued.
Landowners whose property sits within the projected boundaries of the refuge will be affected in only one respect, French explained: “All it means is, there’s a potentially willing buyer out there — us, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
He continued, “They can sell it, keep it, or do what they want: there’s no impact on what you can do with your land or how you use it, absolutely none.”
The refuge has four goals: conservation, education, recreation and partnership. Partnership can be just as effective a management strategy as land purchases.
“It’s not just buying land,” French said. In fact, the refuge will succeed only if officials manage to work out partnerships with states, businesses and landowners that are mutually beneficial. Often this means leaving land in the hands of private citizens or businesses. The “working landscape” is a conserved landscape.
“When we’re breaking into a new area, more often than not people are skeptical about us, but over time we typically develop good relationships on the community level,” French said. “Our goal is to be viewed as an asset to the community.”
Essex County, where most of the refuge’s land is located, could see another 6,174 acres added to the 26,605 already under Fish and Wildlife Service ownership.
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, is worried that additional federal forest land could imperil residents’ access for snowmobiling, hunting and fishing — in particular, older folks or those who use wheelchairs.
“One of the questions has always been access, and what they do with traditional uses,” said Rodgers said.
Federal land ownership could also hurt tax collections for municipalities, since the U.S. government compensates towns in lieu of property taxes at a rate much lower than what localities can collect from private entities, Rodgers explained. According to Rodgers, positive outcomes from the conserved land are possible, “if it secures land for the public, as long as they don’t dramatically change what can and can’t be done on it.”
Beyond the Essex County additions, the Fish and Wildlife Service has designs in the plan to establish four new conservation areas: one, in Vershire, Fairlee and West Fairlee, would contain 15,072 acres and would be named the Ompompanoosuc Conservation Focus Area.
In Killington and Stockbridge a wildlife area known as White River Conservation Focus Area would be comprised of 10,054 acres.
In Bridgewater the wildlife area would cover 5,985 acres and would go by the name of Ottauquechee Conservation Focus Area.
Still another would encompass 22,947 acres, located in Londonberry, Windham, Jamaica, Townshend, Newfane and Wardsboro, and would receive the name of West River Conservation Focus Area.
The Silvio O. Conte refuge already holds 285 acres in the Putney Mountain Unit, located in Brookline and Putney. The plan was originally released in August 2015, with a 90-day public comment period. Now the proposal is undergoing a final, 30-day public comment period, which ends Jan. 17, 2017.
Photo by David Govatski/USFWS
A moose wades at the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Essex County.