U.S. Fish And Wildlife Looks To Expand Conte Wildlife Refuge In Vermont And Neighboring States

Dec 27, 2016

The federal government just released its final plan for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The government says it wants to expand Conte, including adding about 54,000 acres along four rivers in Vermont that flow into the Connecticut.

The Conte refuge was established to protect the Connecticut River watershed, and it stretches from Vermont and New Hampshire, down through Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Andrew French, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project director, says the Conte refuge isn't a single patch of land and water, but rather a series of small and large parcels in four states, each of which was set up to support the Connecticut River watershed.

"The Conte Refuge is unique in the national wildlife refuge system," says French. "It's the only watershed-based refuge in the system. While it's not physically contiguous, as you would think in the traditional sense, ecologically it's contiguous."

And now, U.S. Fish and Wildlife wants to add almost 200,000 acres to the Conte system, which would increase the federal agency's holdings by almost four times.
 

The Fort River trail system in Hadley, Massachusetts includes a raised trail that is accessible to people who use wheelchairs. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it wants to add other accessible trails on the land it hopes to acquire over the next few decades.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Before the federal government released its final plan, there were four options on the table, ranging from keeping the refuge at the size it is, to working more with landowners and not having the government buy so much land.

A third option had the government focusing less on development and the fourth, and preferred option, includes purchasing 197,296 acres.

In Vermont, the wild Nulhegan Basin in the Northeast Kingdom, and another smaller section on Putney Mountain in southern Vermont, are currently part of the Conte refuge.

"The Conte Refuge is ... the only watershed-based refuge in the system. While it's not physically contiguous, as you would think in the traditional sense, ecologically it's contiguous." — Andrew French, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project director

Under the proposed plan, the government would purchase another 6,000 acres in Nulhegan, as well as land along the White River near Killington, and a large section in the West River Valley in Windham County.

The proposal also includes adding about 15,000 acres along the Ompompanoosuc River, near Fairlee, and another 6,000 acres in Bridgewater along the Ottauquechee River.

U.S Fish and Wildlife held hearings last year in all four states before issuing its final report this month.

There was pushback at all of the hearings from some people who said the federal government shouldn't take land out of private use.

But French says land is only purchased from willing buyers, and he says each acquisition is considered independently, with the greater health of the Connecticut River always driving the decisions.

The Fort River Bird and Nature Trail in Hadley, Massachusetts is part of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.

"You know, we don't go in and protect land because this group or that group called us up and said 'Hey, let's protect this,'" he says. "There's a lot more to that. Because when you buy land you're taking on that stewardship in perpetuity. So you need to get the right land in the right amount in the right place."

But some dispute whether it's the federal government that should be deciding what's the right amount and place.

Steve McLeod lives in Bolton and he attended the hearing in St. Johnsbury.

McLeod says when the federal government takes over wild lands, it impacts the forest industry and there are limits set on recreation.

"It's a pretty scary prospect to have the federal government become such an overwhelming presence up and down the Connecticut River on both the Vermont and  New Hampshire side," said McLoud. "People use the land for activities such as hunting, trapping, snowmobiling, ATVing, you know, what does the future mean if the land is owned by the government."

"It's a pretty scary prospect to have the federal government become such an overwhelming presence up and down the Connecticut River ... People use the land for activities such as hunting, trapping, snowmobiling, ATVing, you know, what does the future mean if the land is owned by the government?" — Steve McLeod

David Deen is with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, and he says the Conte Refuge has had a significant impact on the health of the river.

But Deen wants the federal government to make more of an effort to work with landowners instead of purchasing land and taking it off the tax rolls.

The feds promise to make payments in lieu of taxes but Deen says those payments never make up for the lost tax base.

 "Here in Vermont, that has an impact on our education funding and it has an impact on our municipal funding," Deen says. "You have a responsibility to Vermonters if you use our land."

French, the Conte project director, says the proposed land purchases will take decades to complete.

He says global warming, and weather events like Tropical Storm Irene, have driven home the need to plan for resiliency, and do more to protect an environmental resource like the Connecticut River.

The Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director will make a final decision on the plan before mid-January.