A Tale of Two Towns

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The Adirondacks to Southern Green Mountains –A Tale of Two Towns

In 2009, GIS mapping and modeling determined that the green forested wildlife corridor stretching from New York’s Adirondacks to the Southern Green Mountains narrows to one of its thinnest, most threatened, pinch-points where it crosses busy Vermont Route 7 in the little Rutland County towns of Brandon and Pittsford.

It fell on the shoulders of newly hired Staying Connected linkage coordinator Monica Erhart to inform Brandon and Pittsford – along with eleven other key Rutland County communities – of the important role they could play in maintaining the integrity of a wildlife corridor that is critical to the movement of the region’s largest, far-ranging mammals such as bear, bobcat, moose, and fisher.

But how to go about it? The twenty-two partners of Staying Connected were committed to helping communities preserve these linkages, but didn’t know exactly how that local program would work, recalls Erhart. “I figured that bold action couldn’t be my first step, since our goal was to assist each town in letting the Staying Connected process unfold in the unique way that town wanted it to unfold. So my approach was to find out as much as I could about the communities before doing anything.”

Erhart quickly learned that no two Vermont towns work exactly the same way. In some, the gateway into a community was through municipal officials and town meetings, in others, it was through informal potlucks held at people’s homes.

“We got tremendously lucky in Brandon. They were doing major updates to their town plan, just as the Staying Connected Initiative got started, and they also had a couple biologists on their planning commission,” says Monica. Late in 2009, Paul Marangelo of the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy and Jens Hilke of Vermont Fish and Wildlife presented the case for wildlife connectivity to the commission.

“We got pretty excited that we had this unique resource in town,” remembers Ethan Swift, the commission chair at the time. “We immediately began to look at ways to better define the corridor, and at the available tools to protect it.” The planning commission quickly incorporated protective language into its 2009 Brandon town plan, writing that:

Important wildlife corridors will be protected or conserved from encroaching development and incompatible activities, such as road expansion or development of new roads, by restricting development in and around corridors. These resources will be given high priority in considering lands for acquisition or other long-term conservation efforts.

The planning commission is currently revising Brandon’s land use ordinance, and is conducting an open public process to craft a wildlife corridor strategy consistent with community values. One option being considered would be zoning overlays to better protect the Adirondack to Southern Greens linkage. The commission’s hope is that a series of public meetings, incorporating a variety of viewpoints – from property owners, hunters, environmentalists, hikers, and other town residents – will result in a final strategy that receives widespread community support.

Just to the south in Pittsford, Staying Connected made a similar initial presentation to the town select board and planning commission. Officials there were interested to learn that an important wildlife corridor crossed their community, but were less inclined to deal with connectivity on a town planning level and more willing to address it at the volunteer-landowner level. They suggested a conversation with the wider community.

Pursuing that strategy, Staying Connected and the town co-sponsored a Pittsford get-acquainted public event to talk about wildlife corridors, and to ask residents where they had seen wildlife. “It was great fun. Everyone put colored stickers on big maps to mark where they had seen animals around town,” says Monica. While such anecdotal evidence isn’t valid as science, it is valuable. “I learned a lot from locals that night, as they offered reports of where they’d seen bobcat, bear, moose, and fisher. It only makes sense: Letting people who have knowledge share their knowledge. I mean, who knows more about a community than the people who live there?” This public mapping session also comforted some residents who had at first feared that Staying Connected was there to force its vision on the community; instead, residents felt empowered by the inclusive process.

Monica agrees that working with so many diverse and different constituencies within communities is a little like dating. Communities generally want to start slowly and get to know you, she says. “They don’t want to rush into anything. So you try to build trust and build relationship before moving on to commitments.”

Often such relationship building is best done not in impersonal town hall meeting rooms, but at friendly potlucks or on hiking trails. After her initial meetings in Brandon and Pittsford, Monica became a catalyst for more Staying Connected informational and educational events. She helped residents initiate an interpretive trail in Pittsford, and formed an important alliance with Brandon’s Hawk Hill Committee.

Hawk Hill is a 230-acre conserved and forested knoll located in southern Brandon, just west of Route 7 and behind Otter Valley Union High School, which owns and manages the property. Hawk Hill also happens to be a vital green stepping stone for any large mammals moving through Brandon toward the Adirondacks or Green Mountains.

“I hadn’t thought much about wildlife corridors before meeting with Monica,” says Hawk Hill Committee chair Bob Clark, “But if you look at a satellite photo you see how the forest narrows as it comes into Brandon from the West, and then widens again to the East. That made me value the unspoiled land of Hawk Hill more than I already did.”

Several meetings between Monica and the committee that manages the property resulted in Hawk Hill becoming a hub for Staying Connected educational activities. It was the perfect partnership, since the high school serves both the communities of Brandon and Pittsford, as well as other towns within the wildlife corridor.

“In February 2011, we launched a series of informative Staying Connected hikes at Hawk Hill. The first was a wildlife hike, co-led by the students of the Moosalamoo Center, the outdoor education program at the high school,” says Hawk Hill Committee member and historian Bill Powers. “The enthusiasm those kids showed was really heartening.”

Interpretive hikes about local forestry, history, geology, and birding followed, with as many as 50 participants on each walk learning about wildlife corridors. “It gave local folks an appreciation of the green jewel that is Hawk Hill, and really connected people to the land,” says Powers.

Bud Snow, also of the Hawk Hill Committee, appreciates Staying Connected too, “I’ve lived in Brandon all my life, hunted here, and knew wildlife moved though the area,” he says, “But it was great to get onboard and understand the big picture. Staying Connected is hugely important. If we don’t take care of wild areas, keeping them for animals to move through, then those animals will disappear and not be there for future generations.”

The Hawk Hill educational programs greatly inspired young people. Students of the Moosalamoo Center, Otter Valley Union High School’s outdoor education program, were given the responsibility of co-leading hikes, teaching tracking skills, and participating in Staying Connected citizen science. “My students responded wonderfully,” says Josh Hardt, the teacher who founded the innovative Moosalamoo program. “The partnership with Staying Connected takes kids beyond their schoolwork, gives them a sense of worth, and connects them to a larger purpose. I saw a huge surge of pride in these students – some who were academically challenged – when they were given the opportunity to express themselves and lead with confidence. It was a powerful experience.”

Staying Connected also furthered its educational effort with informational letters sent to Brandon and Pittsford landowners asking the question: “Did you know that your land is part of a wildlife corridor for animals like black bear, bobcat and moose?” In November 2012, Staying Connected hosted a talk at the high school by naturalist Ben Kilham, who raises orphaned bear cubs. The 65 participants learned about wildlife connectivity, as did 30 participants who attended a “Neighbors of Hawk Hill” public event in December.

The Staying Connected Initiative strengthened its local presence in yet another way: through citizen science. Rutland County residents were invited to training sessions at Hawk Hill and around the county to learn how to identify tracks and other animal sign. Willing participants were then assigned to key wildlife road crossings in Pittsford, Brandon and many other communities. Today more than a dozen dedicated volunteer trackers are contributing real data for real science.

“In December 2011, I saw a notice at a local hardware store: ‘Free: come learn about wildlife tracking,’ and I signed up,” recalls Linda Shelvey, a 13th generation Vermonter. She got trained and eagerly awaited snow. “I had my forms, my clipboard, and couldn’t wait to gather a little baseline data. In March 2012, I found where mink had come down a brook and used a culvert to go under Route 7. At a nearby marble quarry you could see where fox had been out on the ice. I also saw tracks and sign for coyote, otter and deer. The landscape is coming alive for me. I can’t wait to get out again next winter!”

Monica, with the assistance of Green Mountain College professor John Van Hoesen and his students, also set up a website called: “Where in Rutland County Have You Seen Wildlife?” More than 150 reports came in by the end of 2012. The website builds community awareness and its informal database helps confirm GIS mapping of wildlife corridors. The website may also reveal active road crossings that modeling missed.

The enthusiastic response of the thirteen Rutland County communities she has worked with is gratifying, says Erhart. “Communities have been very willing to focus on and talk about how they use the land, and what they value about it. Most Staying Connected towns are, by definition, rural places where forestlands are appreciated by hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, ATV riders, foresters and others. People really want the wildlife to be there. So our approach has been to look at everyone’s land use values to see where they overlap with wildlife needs, and try to work together so all those values are protected.”

“Staying Connected is a wonderful resource for our town and region because it addresses communitywide needs in terms of education and planning,” agrees Anne Bransfield, current chair of the Brandon Planning Commission. “I am very hopeful that Staying Connected will remain a vibrant partner in the protection of wildlife corridors. I believe the organization can be a catalyst for towns to work together on this shared priority.”

Of course, there is still much to do. Maintaining corridors is a complex process and Rutland County’s towns will need ongoing guidance and technical assistance on how best to keep big habitat blocks, riparian corridors, hedgerows, and other linkages intact through conservation, easements, subdivision regulation, zoning, information, education and other tools.

“The seed has been planted. Now we want to see what grows,” says Monica. “When I started three years ago, nobody had heard the words ‘wildlife corridor’ used in relation to Rutland County. Today, if I open with the same question I used then, which was: ‘Did you know you live in a wildlife corridor?’ people I’ve never met answer, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’ That’s a big change. So if I’m a property owner, or going to a town meeting, or want to build a house, or develop the land, now that awareness is there.”

“Twenty years from now,” she concludes, “I’d love to see that these wildlife connections still exist, and that people in all of these communities are still aware, and feeling pride and ownership in protecting them.”