Vermont Conservation Summary

Vermont is well known as the “Green Mountain State,” as this northern extension of the Appalachians extends up the center of the state, essentially dividing it in half. Both the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail (the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the country) traverse the spine of these mountains, providing ample recreational opportunities and spectacular views.  Perhaps less well known is that Vermont’s real biological treasures lie on either side of these Green Mountains in the Connecticut River Valley, Lake Champlain Valley and the nearby Taconic Range. All of these areas contain carbonate-rich rocks, and the resultant richness of the vegetation is striking. Northern hardwood forest covers the lower slopes and foothills of the Taconics and both valleys while limestone bluffs line much of the lakeshore along the mainland and Lake Champlain’s approximately 80 islands. One of these islands harbors a 450-million-year-old fossil reef, making it one of the oldest fossil reefs on Earth. Lake Champlain is also a center of aquatic diversity, supporting many species of turtles, fishes and mussels that are found nowhere else in New England.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

For its size, Vermont displays a surprising amount of diversity in both its flora and fauna. This species richness is a result partly of a varied geography, including mountain summits and extensive lowlands associated with Lake Champlain, but also of the prevalence of carbonate-rich rocks throughout much of the state. Vermont’s sugar-maple-dominated, northern hardwood forests cover huge expanses, and the state’s rich northern hardwoods are believed to be the largest in the northeast. In areas of calcareous bedrock where colder and wetter conditions prevail, we find northern white cedar and hardwood-cedar swamps. When sufficient groundwater seepage occurs to preclude trees, calcareous fens typically occur; these wetland natural community types are renowned for their abundance of orchids, including the globally uncommon ram’s head lady’s-slipper. Where dry shale or limestone outcrops prevail, especially along rocky headlands of Lake Champlain, cedar bluff forest, some more than 300 years old, dominates. Farther from the lake where the low-lying valley was inundated by lacustrine and marine waters following the last glacial period, thick deposits of clay and silt were deposited to form the Champlain Valley clayplain forest, a rare natural community that is restricted to Vermont, New York and Quebec. In addition to providing habitat for over 30 state rare or endangered plants, the clayplain forest provides maternity colony habitat for the federally endangered Indiana bat.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Nearly twenty percent of Vermont is conserved either by federal, state or municipal agencies, or by private conservation organizations. While previously the focus was on high-elevation lands which primarily provided habitat for wildlife, present protection efforts target lower elevations and are designed to protect more of the state’s biological diversity. The focus has also shifted to protecting larger forested blocks and matrix-forming natural communities rather than smaller patches. This latter approach is best exemplified by a collaborative effort between the state, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the Conservation Fund to purchase approximately 133,000 acres from a timber company in the Northeast Highlands. These lands contain some of Vermont’s best examples of black spruce swamps, dwarf shrub bogs and lowland spruce-fir forest.

Threats

Despite numerous conservation success stories, such as the recovery of peregrine falcons, common loons and osprey, Vermont still faces a number of conservation challenges. Foremost among these is habitat loss and degradation due to development and fragmentation. Construction of roads and rural residences poses a significant threat to wildlife habitat and ecological integrity, especially when coupled with the anticipated environmental impact of climate change. Exacerbated by the increased fragmentation is the spread of invasive, exotic species in the state. The spread of both exotic plants and animals will likely intensify with global climate change and will certainly transform the landscape, likely altering the composition of even the quintessential Vermont northern hardwood forest.

Vermont’s Future

Despite some serious threats to Vermont’s natural landscape, support for the natural environment remains strong among Vermonters. A 2000 survey found that 97 percent of respondents want wildlife and their habitats to be protected; but perhaps most encouraging was that 94 percent of respondents wanted the most emphasis placed on threatened and endangered species. Only with the support of its increasingly aware and supportive human population will Vermont be able to protect and conserve its diverse natural communities, flora, wildlife populations and the scenic landscapes they share.

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