The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation has some changes planned for the trails and beaches at the south end of Lake Willoughby. But not everyone believes those changes will be improvements.
Hawaii resident John Nagle is visiting his daughter in Vermont. And while he’s here, he and friend Skip Van Rees are spending some time paddleboarding off of Willoughby’s South Beach, in Westmore.
They were surprised to learn the state has plans to expand parking and put bathroom facilities here, at the Willoughby State Forest.
"It's one of the most pristine places in Vermont, so why would you want to change it?" Nagle asks.
Van Rees adds, "You can't make it any better."
Lake Willoughby runs deep and clear, carved by a glacier between Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. Forests, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder calls it a gem. But, he says, it’s not completely unspoiled. He says it’s well-loved and well-used, and that use needs to be managed.
"That's our responsibility," says Snyder. "This is a State Forest and we want it to be enjoyed by all and be sustainable. And it’s not sufficient, it’s not adequate and it’s not sustainable right now. The level of use, particularly on spike periods, overwhelms that capacity."
To address that problem, the state proposed expanding the parking area that serves the state forest and two beaches, building bathroom facilities and improving some trails. The trail work was planned to both address erosion problems and make more areas wheelchair accessible.
But the public reaction to the original plan was loud and clear. Many people felt it was just too much infrastructure for the area’s secluded trails and coves. So the state downsized its plans, as Snyder explains.
"We've scaled back the parking, pulled it away from the lake," he says. "We're not going to do all the trails that we thought about. We’ll scale those back. And I think we’re going to be looking into composting toilets."
Snyder also shifted oversight of the area from state foresters to state park rangers. And that has raised suspicion among some users, who don’t want Willoughby to become a state park.
Newport Center resident Shelah Vogel frequents Willoughby’s Southwest Cove – a clothing-optional beach that is within the state forest. She brings her rescued special-needs dogs there to swim because it is far away from traffic and crowds.
Sitting on the beach with Elosie, an 11-year-old chocolate lab, she says some of the proposed changes aren’t necessary.
"I don’t think it’s a wonderful idea," she says. "We have a state park in one direction, at Crystal Lake. We have one at Island Pond, and then the north end of this lake also."
Snyder says his department is taking the public’s concerns into consideration, and will soon release a third draft of the plan. He emphasizes that the changes are not designed to make the state forest more like a state park; there are no plans to change the area’s current uses or to start charging admission.
"It's not been converted to a park," he insists. "The name hasn’t changed. That whole thing came out of us announcing that we’ll manage this with our parks staff instead of our forestry staff – which really shouldn’t matter to people other than knowing that the right people with the right training and experience are going to be taking care of this place."
Snyder also says the proposed changes are not intended to increase the area’s capacity.
"I want to be clear that we’re responding to the current level of use," he says. "This proposed set of parking and bath facilities, trail reconfiguration, rehabilitation, ADA compliance – that’s to kind of meet with what’s going there now, not intended to allow expanded use."
Nagel and her fellow beachgoers say they support making some trails handicapped accessible, but they don’t want to be subjected to common state park restrictions – especially those regarding pets and clothing.
"You know, when it’s sunny and this is crystal clear and warm and it’s just paradise, the fact that I can go skinny dipping and take my dogs safely swimming is just a little bonus," says Vogel. "So I’d hate to see all of that disappear in the name of 'improvements,'" she adds with a laugh, making air quotes around the word "improvements."