Plan to Expand Conte Wildlife Refuge Moves Toward Adoption

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/29/2016 12:20:41 AM
Modified: 12/29/2016 11:54:18 AM

Federal wildlife officials are taking final public comments on a plan to add more than 100,000 acres, including significant amounts of land in Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire and Bridgewater, to a wildlife refuge designed to protect the Connecticut River watershed.

Area officials and conservationists said they welcome any effort to conserve Vermont’s land, but they have unresolved questions about how the federal system will match up to local conservation easements and efforts.

Under the 15-year strategic plan, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge would transform 5,985 acres in Bridgewater into the Ottauquechee River Conservation Focus Area; another 15,072 acres centered in West Fairlee would become the Ompompanoosuc Conservation Focus Area.

The Conte Refuge, which was founded in 1997 and currently controls 37,000 acres, has a history of land purchases from willing sellers, but one change in the new plan is a focus on partnerships and conservation easements.

“As it makes its new plan and proposes to expand its footprint, easements are back in the toolbox, which is a long time coming. How they actually do that, that’s what we don’t know,” said Jeanie McIntyre, executive director of the Upper Valley Land Trust. “There’s not a lot of good examples because it’s new.”

The proposed federal plan is an update to a 1995 plan that has become outdated, according to the plan’s authors; it would guide the agency’s decisions for the next 15 years.

“The economy and patterns of land use and land ownership in local communities are changing. The pressures for public use and access on existing and new refuge lands across the watershed have continued to increase. Climate change and natural processes have also altered, and will continue to alter, the refuge and watershed environment,” according to the plan.

The plan lays out four alternative strategies — under the first two, the refuge would continue under its current authority to pursue about 98,000 acres in the 7.2 million-acre watershed; a third, more aggressive strategy that the agency has identified as its “preferred alternative,” would add focus on local partnerships and expand its target to about 197,000 acres. A final, fourth alternative is more expansive, with an expanded focus of up to 231,000 acres.

McIntyre said there’s a natural tension between a massive institution like the federal government, which gravitates toward standardization, and Vermont’s idiosyncratic culture of land conservation, which is founded on custom-made partnerships between private landowners, many of whom have agricultural interests, and entities like the Upper Valley Land Trust.

“It takes a lot of effort from the partners to make sure that our efforts reinforce one another and support one another,” she said.

Still, McIntyre said she saw the plan as a good thing.

“The more people putting their minds to conservation, the better,” she said.

Peg Willey, chairwoman of the West Fairlee Conservation Commission, applauded the idea, which she said demonstrates the value of the land that area environmentalists have been trying to protect for years.

“It stands in line with what we know about this area in terms of it being rich in resources and a good corridor” for an area that otherwise would be unconnected, she said.

In the end, the expansion plan may just mean that landowners have another option when considering whether to sell their properties.

“Landowners with particular sets of concerns will find certain programs more suitable to them than other landowners,” McIntyre said. “Some might read them and find they’re very compatible and others may have a very different perspective.”

One such landowner is David Matthews, who said about 800 acres of land owned by his family in West Fairlee is included in the plan’s area of focus.

Matthews, who also is the chairman of the Fairlee Forest Board, said the family has explored placing the land into a trust or into a federal program, and that both have drawbacks.

Federal programs he’s looked at in the past, he said, have included clauses that give the government too much leeway to change the agreement in the future.

But, he said, he’s also not keen on opening the land to unfettered recreational use, which often is a feature of conservation easements purchased by the Upper Valley Land Trust.

“One of the sticking points is, we don’t want to sell the development rights and then open the floodgates to the public,” he said.

Matthews said he’s also cognizant of how changes might affect the fiscal future of the community.

“My family’s property, the town receives about $25,000 a year in property taxes,” he said. “If we were to sell it, it’s lucrative to the landowner, because the Silvio Conte Refuge will pay 100 percent of the appraised value. But the town’s receipts would go down to more like $5,000. The other $20,000 is going to be picked up by other taxpayers. That’s kind of the downside.”

Matthews isn’t the only one concerned about possible lost tax revenues.

Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, submitted a comment letter on the draft plan about a year ago in which he voiced overall support for the plan, but urged federal officials to think of tax revenues.

“Towns may see a loss of property tax revenue. ... “We would strongly urge the Service to make acquisitions as revenue-neutral for towns as possible,” he wrote.

He also wrote that the government should respect recreational activities that are ongoing on much of the land the refuge seeks to acquire.

“We want to ensure that popular forms of recreation such as snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing will still be permissible on these lands. ... These important uses have a positive economic impact on the Region,” he wrote.

Kevin Geiger, a senior planner with the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, said the current conservation efforts have been respectful of the fact that much of the Bridgewater land under discussion is made up of large tracts owned by timber harvesters.

But he also said that the underlying plan serves a need.

Geiger said that, just as a regional commission can bring a different conservation perspective to the table than municipalities, the federal government has another, equally important stake.

“Locally, you can’t deal on a watershed basis or a habitat basis person by person. If you’re talking bear habitat, bobcat habitat, you’re talking hundred or thousands of acres,” he said.

Geiger also said the federal government, like everyone else, will be limited in the scope of its ambition by funding availability.

“People may feel like it’s imminent, but I don’t think anything’s imminent,” he said. “I don’t envision that the federal government is going to have the money or the inclination to be immediately buying these plots of land.”

The final 30-day public comment period ends on Jan. 17, after which the service will move to make any final changes and adopt the plan.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.


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