Vernon's Black Gum Swamp, An 'Ecological Treasure,' To Get Highest Wetland Protection

Nov 1, 2016

The Agency of Natural Resources wants to preserve a rare plant community in Vernon known as the Black Gum Swamp.

And the state is in the process of giving it the highest level of protection under Vermont's wetland rules.

Windham County forester Bill Guenther spends a lot of time walking around the woods.

Guenther's hardly met a tree he doesn't like, but he says this place is pretty special.

"I have always felt that the Vernon black gum swamps are very likely southeastern Vermont's best ecological treasure that we have," Guenther says as he makes his way into the forest in Vernon. "There's nothing else that looks like this is in the southern Vermont forest."

Guenther walks up a steep hill, across a soft blanket of fresh snow that squishes into the fresh leaf cover on this October afternoon.

The black gum tree typically grows 300 or 400 miles to the south, and this rare stand is one of the largest in New England.

The tree has thick furrowed bark that's been compared to alligator skin, and Guenther says these trees are probably some of the oldest in the state.

Windham County Forester Bill Guenther shows how deep the thick bark of the black gum tree grows. Guenther says some of these trees are about 400 years old.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"I often refer to this area as a medieval-like forest," he says. "It's like going back many years in time. We've done some tree coring in the past out here, and these trees are roughly a little over 400 years old."

The swamp down here in Vernon doesn't feel like a typical New England forest, with its thick, soft mossy floor and twisting black gum trees rising up.

"I often refer to this area as a medieval-like forest. It's like going back many years in time." - Bill Guenther, Windham County forester

It's rare for the state to designate a wetland as Class 1 — a category that brings the highest level of protection. There are only three other Class 1 wetlands in Vermont, and the last designation was made about 15 years ago.

Laura Lapierre manages the state's wetlands program for the Department of Environmental Conservation, and she says the areas that do receive the classification are irreplaceable, and important for the state to protect.

"By doing the Class 1 designations, we're able to do a proactive approach to wetland regulations, where we can say, 'Here are the cream of the crop, the best, most unique and irreplaceable wetlands in the state,'" Lapierre says. "And they're best left to their own devices to continue to thrive for the functions and values they provide to the natural world and to the people of Vermont."

The Black Gum Swamp is in the Vernon Town Forest.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR file

Lapierre says the area also includes rare plants, and she says the wetland deserves protection because of its unique ecosystem.

Class 1 designation limits development, and the plan in Vernon includes a 300-foot buffer zone to protect the swamp environment.

At about 28 acres, the black gum swamp would also be one of Vermont's smallest Class 1 wetlands.