By Julia Purdy
On a recent early spring day, with snow still blanketing the woods, no green shoots were poking through just yet, but meltwater was trickling across the old woods road along the east flank of Birdseye, where deer and turkey had left recent tracks.
At the top of the hike, a winter-beaten field falls away to a 180-degree, 3½-mile vista of the tumbled mass of the Taconic mountain range, textured with scraps of snow and the pink tinge of budding trees. Above loom the jagged cliffs of Bird Mountain, locally known as “Bird’s Eye.”
Bird’s Eye is the beloved landmark that broods over Route 4A west of Rutland. The out crop is the centerpiece of the existing 770-acre Bird Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which originated in 1976 with a state purchase from a private owner.
Later, in a visionary move, an adjacent owner sold his woodland parcel to the state. In December 2016, the transfer of 2,870 more acres south of Bird Mountain was completed to create a new WMA, to be called Bird’s Eye WMA.
The new WMA combines four smaller parcels into a single tract: the current Bird Mountain with 770 acres, one parcel of 1,404 acres in Poultney and two totaling 1,466 acres in Ira. The area was historically farm and commercial timber land, lying between the Poultney line and the West Rutland line.
Jane Lazorchak, Vermont Fish & Wildlife land acquisition coordinator, has called it “the largest state acquisition in more than 15 years.”
The tract contains geological features of statewide significance. Geologists have concluded that the Taconics slid or were pushed westward by tectonic movements, like a rumpled tablecloth on a table, 500-400 million years ago. The massive, freestanding rock we call Bird’s Eye is likely a “klippe” that was left over as the surrounding rock mass eroded away.
This is not technically a wilderness. The view from Bird Mountain looks out over the mountain fastnesses of Ira and Poultney that hark back to the days of the Green Mountain Boys; Herrick Mountain is named for one of their captains. In the 20th century the area was carved up for vacation properties, then consolidated by commercial timber companies.
Most recently, this unusual area was being considered for the siting of 60 400-500-foot-tall industrial wind turbines, marching along the divide and entailing massive environmental destruction. Eight years ago the Community Wind Farm project was withdrawn when Poultney and Ira added strong conservation measures for this area to their town plans.
Now, protected in perpetuity, the area offers the opportunity to explore once again the timeless, rejuvenating qualities of this parallel world.
What is special about the new Bird’s Eye WMA?
The value of the new WMA can hardly be overstated. The acquisition protects, for the foreseeable future, an ecologically atypical corner of Vermont, identified by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources as a “Rare and Irreplaceable Natural Area” (Criterion 8 under Act 250). The new WMA features 10 natural communities, including oak-pine forests. Its abundant oaks provide a nutritious winter food staple for almost every species, including deer, wild turkey and bear. Its southern exposure provides good deer wintering “yards.” The tumbled talus boulders and open woods at the feet of Bird’s Eye cliff make for good bobcat habitat, and peregrine falcons breed undisturbed in the crags above.
An important consideration is the sheer size of the new land mass, which totals about 15 percent of the 23,600-acre Taconic range. The new tract merges with the current Bird Mountain WMA and provides a critical connection to the Blueberry Hill WMA, Tinmouth Channel WMA, the West Rutland Town Forest and other conserved lands.
As human development increasingly pinches wildlife populations, forest “blocks” are viewed as critical not only to habitat but to wildlife survival. Animals that range widely such as bears, bobcats, fisher, moose and the barred owl are better able to move around in response to climate-driven changes and to find mates and establish new territories. This particular block is seen as providing important Northern Forest breeding habitat, especially for migratory birds.
Conservation of lands like this one offer important infrastructure benefits to human communities, as well. The property encompasses 8½ miles of stream and almost 3,000 acres of watershed, including the headwaters of the Poultney, Castleton and Clarendon rivers, in addition to many vernal pools. Twenty-four acres of mapped wetlands filter out sediments and absorb rainwater and snowmelt, mitigating potential flooding in downstream settlements.
Schedule A, which accompanies the warranty deed, lists the many chains of title spanning the 20th century, most of which were acquired by Yankee Forest LLC (a Yale University investment, managed by Wagner Forest Management) around 2002. In 2013 the Town of Poultney and Yankee Forest conveyed holdings to the nonprofit Conservation Fund of Virginia, acting on behalf of the state as an intermediary purchaser to expedite the lengthy acquisition process.
The Conservation Fund then transferred clear title by warranty deed to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Department in December 2016.
According to Lazorchak, the actual purchase price was about $3.1 million, of which $600,000 was covered by a grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, with the same amount from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program. Other resources included $1.5 million from the Vermont Community Foundation, $250,000 from Green Mountain Power, $20,000 from the Lintilhac Foundation, and amounts from the Vermont Wild Turkey Federation and the sale of F&W Habitat Stamps. No additional public funding will be requested from the state budget.
The conservation easement
A separate, exhaustive conservation easement titled “Yankee Lands Fish and Wildlife Conservation Easement” was granted to the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for oversight. The grant agreement is on file at Vermont Fish & Wildlife, Montpelier.
The exclusive purpose of the grant is the “permanent protection, management and enhancement of wildlife and wildlife habitat and to allow compatible wildlife-associated uses” and to expand the existing Bird Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
The permanent covenants contained in the conservation easement outline the terms and conditions for the use and management of the land. The stated purposes include:
“To conserve and protect biological diversity, important wildlife habitat and natural communities on the Protected Property and natural resource values”;
To allow unrestricted access to the property for “non-commercial, non-motorized, nonmechanized wildlife-based public outdoor recreation” and “quiet enjoyment of the Protected Property”;
“To conserve and protect the Protected Property’s undeveloped character and scenic and open space resources”; and
“To enable sustainable forest management that allows a variety of silvicultural practices to manage forest health, to include, but not be limited to, exotic and invasive species removal, habitat and natural communities’ improvement or restoration, and strategies for climate change adaptation.”
Disallowed uses include, broadly, any alterations to the land features and uses except in accordance with the management plan and the purposes of the grant, dumping, and motorized vehicles except for management activities, emergency, and accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Snowmobiling may be permitted as provided for in the Management Plans.”
The long-range management plan process is ongoing. Public scoping meetings will be held to take input from the public over the course of a year, beginning soon.
Photo by John David Geery, courtesy of Vermonters for a Clean Environment
Looking toward Middletown Springs from Bird’s Eye. To the left is the West Rutland ridge; Herrick Mountain and Little Herrick in Ira occupy center stage; toward the right are Spruce Knob and the hollows of Poultney.