The federal government is gathering input on a 15-year plan for the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife wants to significantly increase the amount of land in the four-state conservation area, but environmentalists have very different ideas about the plan.
The refuge was established in 1997 to protect the entire Connecticut River watershed, and the 36,000 acres covers land in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife released a draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan with four alternatives, including one that would more than double the land in the refuge. In each of the four alternatives, the U.S. government would continue acquiring land for the Conte refuge.
In Vermont, the number of acres would grow from just under 27,000 to almost 93,000, under the most ambitious plan.
The refuge currently has authority to acquire up to 97,830 acres within the watershed, and under Alternative A the government would generally proceed as it has been.
Alternative B would enhance habitat and visitor services within the established area.
Under Alternative C, the Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred plan, the refuge would grow by about 100,000 acres, while Alternative D would grow the area by almost 140,000 acres while bringing more focus on backcountry experiences.
David Deen, Upper Valley river steward at the Connecticut River Watershed Council and a state representative, says the plan to increase the refuge area would hurt small towns that would be losing taxable land.
"Quite honestly, the Watershed Council does not agree with the choice of Alternative C, which is the preferred choice for the Fish and Wildlife Service," Deen says.
Deen says that while the watershed council supports the conservation work of the Conte program,
the federal government should work more with local conservation groups to gain easements and raise money to purchase sensitive areas, ensuring that towns continue receiving fair tax payments.
"Towns' experience with federal ownership is that the refuge has in the past, and would likely in the future, not modify its PILOT payments upward, as land values change upward in a community," he says. "The result is that significant lands under federal ownership usually result in the loss of tax revenue at the state and local level."
Especially in Vermont, Deen says, the loss of property taxes means more money has to come out of the General Fund to cover education expenses.
Deen's comments starkly contrast those of Emily McAdoo, president of The Putney Mountain Association. The Conte refuge includes a 285-acre parcel that abuts land near Putney Mountain, and under the plan the government would construct a new trail and allow more access.
"We endorse Alternative C of the CCP, as this alternative offers increased protection of wildlife habitat and threatened and endangered species through the combination of active management and increased land acquisition," McAdoo says. "Putney Mountain Association will work in partnership with the refuge to offer interpretive programs and to support refuge initiatives."
As part of Alternative C, U.S. Fish and Wildlife would introduce Conservation Partnership Areas where the federal government would more closely work with conservation groups, offering technical support and grant opportunities.
Other comments at the hearing were much less supportive of the overall plan.
John Caveney is the vice president and woodland manager at Cersosimo Lumber Company in Brattleboro.
"I can't support any of what's being represented, especially Article C, and the reason for that is, truthfully, it's economic," Caveney says. "I stand here speaking for myself, but I also speak for 300 employees in our company. In my 40-plus years of experience, most of these landowners have been good stewards. With all due respect, they don't need the help of the federal government."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it prefers Alternative C, which, in Vermont, would expand the Nulhegan Basin Conservation Area, and add new protected areas around the West River, White River, Ompompanoosuc River and Ottauquechee River.
The the 26,605-acre Nulhegan Basin Division is the largest single tract in the refuge, and it would increase by about 5,000 acres under Alternative C.
According to information provided by the federal government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will only acquire land when the property owner agrees to sell or donate parcels.
The federal department says it will make a decision on which of the four options it will choose in the spring, and the final plan could go into action in summer 2016.
Comments on the plan will be accepted by the U.S. government until Nov. 16.