Hearing looks to map out future for Treasure Island

  • A family paddles a rented canoe around Treasure Island in West Fairlee, Vt., on July 15, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/22/2022 10:29:09 PM
Modified: 6/22/2022 10:28:50 PM

THETFORD — Beyond the swimming area and recreation site that has made Treasure Island a popular Lake Fairlee public access point, the property stretches northward. There, nestled between Route 244 and the water, lies a largely undisturbed, forested lakeshore habitat.

The patch of land, about 300 feet wide and less in some spots, is now a source of dispute as the town of Thetford’s Treasure Island Exploratory Committee presents a proposal to reroute old, neglected trails in the area and reimagine the site as a public nature education space.

The plans — which the committee will discuss Thursday night — have had community Listservs blowing up with opinions, and over 30 participants Zoomed in to the Thetford Selectboard meeting on Monday, with six more in person to hear about the area’s future.

At the meeting, Lisa Niccolai, conservation specialist for the White River Conservation District, was called in by the Selectboard to put the site through a Lake Wise assessment, a volunteer program run by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources aimed at promoting lake-conscious development practices on shoreline.

Viewing the area through Lake Wise criteria, which addresses issues such as erosion, runoff, and vegetation depletion, Niccolai identified problems with the existing trails being situated “as close to the lake as possible,” as well as over some wet areas where sensitive plant species have been identified.

She suggested that the trail be relocated upland away from the shoreline and those wetter areas, and that just a few places be designated as lake access points, as opposed to the entire shoreline being available for access.

“Because this is not a super-dense forested area, with some pruning these reroutes can be done,” Niccolai said.

Niccolai also sees this as an opportunity to plant native shrubs, enhancing the suitability of the area for pollinators in an effort to counter the establishment of invasive plants.

The town has also started to address with renewed energy the trash that has piled up on the northern end of Treasure Island. According to exploratory committee member Doug Tifft, this includes metal debris that is perhaps from an old Camp Beenadeewin dumpsite, discarded material from the milfoil control project run by the Lake Fairlee Association, and waste from the recent expansion of the upper parking lot.

Tifft estimates that there are 15,000 pounds of debris.

“This seems to be a positive way to improve a situation that is not good at the moment,” Niccolai said.

The exploratory committee was formed to consider future planning for Treasure Island — which is owned by the town of Thetford and has found itself strapped for cash in the past — and bring proposals to the Selectboard regarding the land’s financial, recreational and conservation needs.

“Conservation is something we’re really interested in, and the trail is only a small part of this,” Tifft said of the group’s charge.

Conservation vs. accessibility

The discussion on Monday came down to questions about how highly to prioritize public accessibility.

For some, genuine habitat protection and new trail development can’t coexist.

Thetford Center resident Alexis Jetter swims from Treasure Island to the northern end of Lake Fairlee a few times a week from late spring through early fall.

“When I swim by I see great blue herons, I see loons — and even though I’m quite a distance from that bird and I’m not making noise and I’m not creating a wake, that bird watches me and it flies away,” Jetter said.

Jetter was in favor of cleaning up the area, but not rerouting the trails.

“We should clean up what we can and then leave it to the animals,” Jetter said. “There are other ways to educate young people about the lake without endangering what’s left. It’s not pristine, but it’s still undeveloped.”

David Fisk, of Post Mills, echoed concern for habitat.

“Bringing in more people to appreciate nature can actually appreciate it to death,” Fisk said.

Any significant patch of undeveloped shoreland area, or “riparian zone,” in New England is ecologically significant. It can be used as a buffer and travel corridor for a number of plants and animals, with the potential to sometimes improve biodiversity by as much as 50%.

Still, others thought that an emphasis on habitat preservation was distracting from the practical uses of the land.

“We know the place and we want to explore, and for you to tell us that critters are more important than our children, and public access, it’s really mind-blowing,” said Angela McCanna, of Post Mills.

Tifft noted that almost everyone seemed to be in agreement that the site needs to be cleaned up, but he also urged those in opposition to the plans to consider accessibility.

“Not everyone has lakefront access,” Tifft said. “Part of our charge is to encourage public access for those people who don’t have that.”

Tifft envisions that the primary use of the southern area of Treasure Island would remain for picnicking and more intensive public use, while the rejuvenation of the trail system on the northern end, with an orientation center as well as plant and animal identification kiosks, might foster nature education for anyone who wants to walk them.

“This is not an area that is pristine. It’s sandwiched between a lot of highway and often a loud waterfront. We really want to make the most of it.”

For now

To actually pursue trail development, Thetford would need to go through the Vermont Lake and Shoreline Agency’s permitting process. According to Town Manager Brian Gazda, if the town began this now, they would have enough information collected by late summer to get going on permitting, meaning that it wouldn’t be until late fall at the earliest that the project might be given official approval.

In addition to the officially delineated wetland on the northern most side of Treasure Island, Niccolai highlighted two areas impacted by culverts running off of Route 244, which are diverting water from the road and possibly supporting a wetter area than what would have been there before.

If these areas are delineated as wetland, the wetland permitting process would impact that area.

“It’s not a deal breaker, it would just require better specification of what (the exploratory committee) would want to see happen there with the trail,” Niccolai said. This would likely mean lifting the trail farther up away from the shoreline.

The four Selectboard members present — Chair Sharon Harkay, Mary Bryant, David Goodrich, and Steven Tofel — unanimously agreed to hire a consultant to perform the wetland delineation.

The Treasure Island Exploratory Committee will be meeting by Zoom at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 30. The meeting is open to the public.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com.




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