COLCHESTER — The tension between protecting Vermont’s natural heritage and building a region fit for the future is again drawing attention as a crucial issue facing the state.
The topic was highlighted last week at a presentation by Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department staff at Delta Park on the shores of Lake Champlain.
“On one hand we need housing to support population growth and density to prevent sprawl out in the countryside,” said conservation planning biologist Jens Hawkins-Hilke, “but on the other hand we need to maintain these interconnected islands of natural habitat.”
Standing on a marshy wetland littered with bone-white pieces of driftwood, the department staff discussed the protection of imperiled species and diverse ecosystems in Vermont, presenting their work to CEO Sean O’Brien of the national conservation group NatureServe, who is traveling around North America visiting natural heritage sites.
Fish & Wildlife staff work to protect a variety of ecosystems that are home to rare, threatened or endangered species across the state — whether that be in the Northeast Kingdom or in Chittenden County, the state’s population center.
Delta Park, a 55-acre area located where the Winooski River flows into Lake Champlain, encompasses a wide range of ecosystems — floodplain forest, marsh, wetlands and natural sand beach. It is also home to multiple rare plant and animal species. Delta Park was created in 1984 in light of concerns that offroad vehicles whad become a serious threat to the area’s natural ecosystem.
Although there are many protected and natural areas in Vermont, conflicting interests can make it challenging to protect the environment.
Vermont is preparing for the future — building infrastructure, expanding broadband access and increasing housing capacity. At the same time, Vermonters are trying to figure out how to protect the Green Mountain State’s natural resources and environment — the clean air, vibrant rivers and abundant flora and fauna that call many to the area in the first place.
According to Hawkions-Hilke, those two interests are often at odds.
“I think there is a tremendous amount of support for valuing and maintaining natural landscapes in Vermont,” he said. “But it’s a complicated world. We want a lot of different things. There are people that move to Vermont that expect suburban services, and then there are people that live here that recall a proud rural tradition.”
Hawkins-Hilke said this clash of expectations can make it difficult to arrive at proper decisions and raises big questions about what Vermonters want the future to look like.
Toni Mikula is familiar with some of the parks’ most threatened species.
Crouching down on a small patch of sandy wetland, the Fish & Wildlife specialist moved a cream-colored, weathered-looking piece of shell back and forth between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’ve stopped here because I’m actually standing next to a spiny softshell turtle nest that was dug up and eaten by a predator,” said Mikula.
Eastern spiny softshells have been listed as threatened in the state of Vermont since 1987. In 2005, they were listed as a “species of greatest conservation need” by Fish & Wildlife.
Lake Champlain hosts the only known population of the species in all of New England and Quebec.
The biggest threat to the species is the loss of nesting habitat, according to Mikula. “There is little undeveloped [Lake Champlain] shoreline left,” she wrote in a follow-up email. Some of the last remaining is in Delta Park. “While losing nesting habitat, softshells are also faced with predators like raccoons and skunks, which thrive in human-dominated landscapes,” she added.
Other rare species, such as the tiger beetle and wright spike thrush, also live in Delta Park.
Tracking and protecting rare species is crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems and combating climate change, said Mark Scott, director of wildlife for Vermont Fish & Wildlife.
“Every cog in the wheel is important,” he said. “If you own an automobile, and you hear a little clunking noise or something falls off the car when you’re driving down the road, you better stop and get it fixed. The same thing is true with the earth. Our living systems are interconnected and every little part is important.”
Many Vermonters broadly support both conservation and development in the abstract, but those issues often come to a head at the local planning, zoning and development level, said Tom Little, who served on Shelburne’s zoning board for a decade and is the chair of Chittenden County’s Act 250 Environmental Commission
This is evident across Chittenden County. A conflict over wetland protection recently suspended the development of a health care center in Charlotte. South Burlington is working on pushing through new zoning and development amendments that protect large blocks of forested land while encouraging new affordable housing.
“The challenge of matching and having complementary goals of providing for good employment and safe and affordable housing and retaining and enhancing natural resources is one of the keys and one of the challenges in South Burlington and beyond,” said Paul Connor, director of planning and zoning for South Burlington.
Regina Mahony, planning program manager for Chittenden County Regional Planning, added that different resources require different levels of protection.
“Figuring out how to develop and conserve is about making tradeoffs and defining and prioritizing resources.”
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