The Catamount Outdoor Family Center is an oasis of wooded trails and serene wetlands in the heart of rapidly-developing Chittenden County. And it may soon become Williston’s newest town forest.
Abbie Bowker is president of the board of directors that’s in charge of the nonprofit Catamount Outdoor Family Center. She’s also the daughter of property owners Jim and Lucy McCullough, and she grew up on the 400-acre property.
As Bowker explains, the McCullough family has worked this land for generations.
"The property was purchased by my great-great-grandfather, Smith Wright, in 1873 from, actually, a second cousin," she explains. "And the property was managed by our relatives, primarily as a dairy farm until the '60s."
The dairy operation closed after the barns burned down. In the late 1970s, the McCulloughs put in cross-country ski trails, opened their outdoor recreation business and also managed the property as a tree farm. In 2005, the outdoor center became a nonprofit organization.
"So now we always say that we farm fun," says Bowker.
To keep that venture viable, Bowker and her family hope to conserve the property by making it public land.
Her father, Vermont Rep. Jim McCullough (D, Chittenden-2), reached out to The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, which is applying for grants and raising donations to buy the property and turn it over to Williston as the Catamount Community Forest. The McCulloughs will retain part of the property, including their family home.
Kate Wanner is with the Trust for Public Land. She says it makes sense to turn the property into a town forest, but have the nonprofit center continue to operate on the land.
"We have these experts who know how to manage the trails and run the camps and provide all the educational and outdoor programming that they’ve done for a long, long time, in partnership with the town, who will now own the property," says Wanner.
The Town of Williston has an environmental reserve fund for conservation projects. It has pledged $400,000 from the fund toward the deal. Town Conservation Planner Melinda Scott says the property is a top priority for Williston’s Conservation Commission.
"It’s the largest unbroken tract of forest remaining in the town," says Scott. "It’s got this extensive and wonderful trail network. And so it’s a great recreation asset. It’s a great asset for protecting wildlife. it’s got a great diversity of birds. … This piece of property is very important for them and for the town."
The property is also accessible to people with a range of abilities, as Bowker explains.
"I’m not just talking about people that are starting to learn how to bike, although we do have many youngsters that are learning how to ride bikes," she says. "But I’m talking also about people who are in wheelchairs, who use sit skis. That there are some places of this property that are perfectly adapted toward many users."
If the land were sold privately, that might mean more than just the loss of those trails. Under current zoning, it could potentially lead to 150 new houses in town.
Williston has seen a lot of large-scale development on former farmlands. But, walking along a snow-covered trail, Abbie Bowker says that’s not what all of Williston is about. And that’s not what her family envisions for their homestead.
"All of Williston is not one part of Williston," she says. "And this is part of Williston’s heritage. And it’s part of Williston’s future."
This Thursday, the town will hold a public forum about the project. Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land is working to secure around $2 million to purchase and conserve the property – including the money pledged by the town.
If all goes well, the Catamount Community Forest could be established by the summer of 2018.