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A tool for planning: Mapping The Valley's natural resources

05/17/2007

By Erin Post

Reams of maps, tables, photos and other data-based in part on field work by a team of experts-provide a comprehensive "snapshot in time" of the natural resources in two Valley towns.

The rest is up to local residents.

That's what consultants from Arrowwood Environmental told a crowd of about 20 people gathered May 10 for the final presentation of a natural heritage inventory for Waitsfield and Fayston.

Made possible by a state grant, the goal was to "map and assess the natural heritage elements that are important to preserving biological diversity" in the two towns, said Arrowwood team members.

The inventory is extensive: Color-coded maps show locations of wildlife crossing corridors, bear habitats and deer wintering habitats; tables list different types of wetlands and forests, their locations, and their significance based on a ranking system that takes into account the state and local landscape.

Although the data should serve as a valuable resource when it comes to planning and zoning, Arrowwood Environmental ecologist Dori Barton noted that the final say about what resources deserve protection--and how to do it--rests with the towns themselves.

"It's a tool to review projects," she said, noting that it does not substitute for town plans or zoning ordinances.

"That's a town-wide decision; you vote on that," she said.

The Arrowwood team stressed that the inventory is a jumping-off point for further study, pointing out that the report needs to be updated as the two towns continue to change. In addition, the team stressed that they did not visit every site in the assessment. Where indicated, field visits are required to verify some resources.

WILDLIFE HABITAT UNDER SCRUTINY

After studying the towns, the team identified 28 "contiguous habitat units," areas that are not divided by roads or other significant human development, said Jeff Parsons, a wildlife biologist and ecologist with Arrowwood.

These areas-which serve as the "starting unit of measure and description" for the study of wildlife habitat--may include many habitat types, including forest, wetland, ledges and cliffs.

Within these contiguous units, the team identified "core" forest areas far removed from the nearest human disturbance. Species such as bobcat and black bear depend on these areas for breeding grounds; some bird species need these forests for protection from predators, Parsons said.

"Core areas are often hilly or mountainous, without easy access, and only rarely or seasonally visited by landowners, hunters and loggers," the Arrowwood report reads. "Wide ranging species thrive in the remote habitat of the core areas."

Recommendations to preserve biological diversity include developing strategies to prevent fragmentation of core areas, Parsons said. The Arrowwood study identified about 30,700 acres of core habitat in Fayston and Waitsfield.

The team suggested a one-quarter of a mile buffer between human development and significant bear habitat, including mapped beech stands and forested wetlands, and a 300-foot buffer for deer wintering habitat.

Parsons recommended further study when it comes to appropriate buffers for other habitats, including ledges, riverside habitat and grasslands.

TRAVEL CORRIDORS

The inventory provides Waitsfield and Fayston with information about wildlife travel corridors above and beyond what most towns in the state have available to them.

"This type of work has only been done at the general state level," Parsons said, noting that state roads are typically the only ones to have been studied.

For the inventory in Waitsfield and Fayston, Parsons said Arrowwood GIS specialist and staff scientist Aaron Worthley applied the same level of scrutiny to town roads as well.

The study involved traveling roads in the winter to look for wildlife markers near the roadsides--including tracks and scat--to identify crossing points as well as studying photographs and data from the state.

According to the report, 76 potential travel corridors have been identified in Waitsfield and Fayston.

Recommendations include verifying and prioritizing travel corridors for conservation. Then, towns may identify strategies to protect them. Possibilities include constructing tunnels under heavily traveled roadways, conserving land contiguous to travel corridors, and improving buffer zones near rivers and streams.

NATURAL COMMUNITIES

Waitsfield and Fayston host "some of the largest montane spruce fir forest in the state," said Arrowwood botanist and ecologist Michael Lew Smith.

A "high elevation, conifer dominated forest...common on the peaks of the Green Mountains," the montane spruce forest is characterized by steep slopes, shallow soils and bedrock outcroppings.

"Some very nice, important hemlock forests" are also located in Waitsfield and Fayston, Smith said, particularly a forest located in part on the Waldron parcel, owned by the town of Waitsfield, and a forest around Deer Brook and French Brook in Fayston.

The study identified 979 acres of potential wetlands in Fayston and Waitsfield, including five "locally significant" wetland complexes important for wildlife habitat, water quality and erosion control.

To protect significant wetlands, the team suggested maintaining a buffer of at least 100 feet and prohibiting logging in forested wetlands.
 
Arrowwood Environmental has just started working on a similar natural resources inventory for the town of Warren. Work is expected to continue throughout the year.

Contact Erin Post at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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