Saturday, September 23, 2023

Who In Hell Would? But That's Just My Opinion

 The following is an opinion piece, my opinion, and it is of no reflection on any of my official and non official affiliations in town.

Picture this, there I was sitting on the grass with Wayne in the park on a beautiful sunny evening enjoying a delicious cheeseburger, cup of lemonade and a couple of friends who stopped by to chat. They wanted to know what was happening on West Road. I was mid sentence in being extremely careful to remain very neutral on the subject when another person dropped in and angrily interrupted with, "You just don't want it in your backyard" and "You need to know the facts!" I never did get another word in as the lecture ensued; but that exchange triggered something in me; and upon much internal debate I have decided to offer my opinion separate of  my formal collaborative opinions.

It does not escape my attention that West Road and the roads that branch off from West Road with the exception of a few landowners, is an area deprived of economic vitality. And I wonder how it is that these sorts of undesirable projects continue to be proposed for areas where residents are least able to defend their interests. 

In a state where a high priority is placed on housing people in rural areas with marginal resources, certain statutes such as the relatively new VT state Development Soils (19V.S.A.  6604c) all but guarantee in municipalities without local control to defend them, a disproportionate impact on lands resided on by marginal income rural owners and their tenants. 

 We moved to Vernon during its Vermont Yankee days of prosperity. Perhaps such weighted grand list industries also served to stave off the municipalities' demand for additional economic resources; on the other hand, perhaps it is our deep rooted heritage in agriculture and in the understanding of a need to conserve our heritage that made land stewardship a priority and an integral part of who we are. In either case, Vernon is blessed with open and low density developed lands.

There is another story to be told here and that is one of natural resources and the partnership of give and take from the land. Forestry and mining for example have seemingly peacefully coexisted in Vernon for generations. I say seemingly, because these natural resource industries must be implemented with careful balance and an eye towards reclamation if Vernon is to sustain a working and livable landscape. This is where the VT Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont's environmental law Act 250 come into play; and who Vernon has abdicated much of its future and certainly the future of the residents of West Road to. 

Vernon does not have local zoning. Vernon operates instead with a 2018 town plan generated by our Planning Commission and approved by the town. A town plan is what lays the groundwork for zoning  should the town choose to establish zoning. The town's plan in of itself, to my knowledge, has little if any legal bearing.

There is a general sentiment in Vernon that people who own property should be able to do what they want with their land and a fear that zoning will strip that right away from them. My contention is this, that unless the land is conserved by other entities, this approach to development places all of the power of land use decisions and therefore the town's future, into the hands of the state and large property owners. 

Our 2018 town plan identifies the future use of the proposed solid waste / development soils site on West Road as rural residential; not as commercial / industrial nor as a town resource; but without local zoning, the rights of one landowner outweighs the needs and interests of the rest of the landowners in that area. This is in spite of the fact that our town views this area as rural residential and not as a permanent storage site for soils contaminated with above background levels of lead, arsenic and carbons. To the tune of 5000 tons of soil a year for ten years (permit parameters), nothing that disturbs that soil will ever be permitted on that land again. 

The state expert at the public meeting reminded me that, "It's a gravel pit." when I questioned if there would be low impact or zero impact on migratory and residential wildlife if the permit was granted. 

Is it a gravel pit, or is it someone's backyard, their water source, their land value, their health and mental wellbeing? Is it a gravel pit or is it a place adjacent to farm crops and where children are raised nearby. Is it a gravel pit or a place where wildlife once thrived and passed through?  Is it land that will be reclaimed or land that will store the waste of a society that refuses to recognize that we are at a tipping point and running out of  places to put our waste. 

 I ask you this, what is the cost benefit? We can't even without zoning in place, set forth  an impact fee structure designed to reserve money to address future unknowns, accidents or post permit management.  Is the only solution we have for development soils to disperse them to lesser contaminated sites not adequately regulated by local ordinances and to areas resided in by people with marginal resources to protect themselves? The state refutes all liability for negative impacts from permits issued. With what will the town and its residents bring legal action should the unforeseen happen?

Furthermore; would a first in the state permit like the one being proposed by LaRock to the Agency of Natural Resources for West Road stand a chance of passing next to Fox Hill, Central Park, Hemlock Road, Laurel Ledges, The Village or even a large block of land formerly farmed? 

It is my hope that that the decision on this permit and others to come, takes into account our town plan and the compounded, disproportionate...INDEED disproportionate impact that these sorts of projects have on those who can least afford to defend their interests. 

Not in my backyard? I'm sure that given the choice, nobody chooses to live next to industrial waste. Who in the hell would? While I know that we must carefully weigh issues for their pros and cons and then pick our battles, I want to let the people of Vernon know this; don't rest your head at night believing that these things won't be coming to a neighborhood near you. Vernon has work to do before we sleep soundly, we must restore balance by passing zoning.

 -Norma Manning

Further reading:

Vegetating Vermont Sand and Gravel Pits

Future Land Use Map Town of Vernon VT 

Sunday, June 11, 2023

A Day of Fish and (for no better explanation) Song

 They scrambled across logs, rocks and cement with rod and tackle in hand. Others lined the shore with tailgates down, casting and chatting while we gathered up above. There was coffee, pastries and familiar faces but for all of this, I wished that I had a line in the water with Wayne by my side. 

Have you ever heard a song about the river?  Where do the songs come from? What I mean is, where do they really come from? Where is that place and how do we get there?

 And so on this Saturday, June the 10th, we came not to play on its shores, we came instead, in search of why we had come. 

There were important people there but important on the surface for different reasons. Our Planning Commission was there. A person who documents the river was there, the newspaper reporter was there, I was identified by another as being on the Conservation Commission. But none there were more so important than the families that had come in search of.

 A speakers statement caught my attention with something about adversaries coming together. Maybe adversaries isn't quite right I contemplated. Maybe instead we are the people who view the river as an opportunity and we are people who see the river as a living thing. 

This 1/2 mile across, 135 foot high cement wall, in and above the river has been generating electricity with its turbines and controlling the CT River since 1909. It has been an economic benefit for Vernon. It is a testament to what engineers were and are capable of. In the modern age, this recently renovated, 114 year old dam has risen to the status of renewable, sustainable, green energy. Even so, there is another view of it.

In May of 1981 the very first fish ladder on the Connecticut river was installed at the Vernon dam. It was specifically designed to restore passage for American Shad and Atlantic Salmon to their spawning grounds above the dam.

 American Shad and Atlantic Salmon are anadromous  fish. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, spend their adult life in saltwater, and only return to freshwater in order to spawn. But they aren't the only fish in the CT river, some fish live their entire lives in the river and its tributaries while others like the American eel are catadromous fish migrating from freshwater to the ocean for spawning. 

"In 1993, due to diminishing returns, the US Fish and Wildlife Services withdrew the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon management program (CRASC)."  Three of my four now adult children, participated along with many other Vernon Elementary School students, in hatching and releasing Atlantic Salmon into our local CT river tributaries. 

May 21, 2023 in Millers Falls, MA (down river).

In 2022, four Atlantic Salmon in total were counted in the CT River Basin Fishway Passage Counts.

Shad make their way through the canals and the Turners Falls fishway on their way up river  to the Vernon  fish ladder.

Looking for wildlife at the Turners Falls fishway. A series of canals diverting the natural path of the river away from their riverbeds creates a significant challenge for migrating fish. 

Great River Hydro, owners of the Vernon hydroelectric plant, operates 13 generating stations and three storage only reservoirs along the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

"Five hydropower facilities along the Connecticut river are up for relicensing. These licenses will impact hundreds of miles of the Connecticut river for thirty to fifty years." It is the Connecticut River Conservancy's   mission to protect and restore the river and the wildlife communities that depend upon it. The public also has the chance to weigh in.

It is the pressure of relicensing the Vernon Hydro Station and the mission to educate the public of the river's value and its challenges that has brought  GRH and CRC to the Vernon dam. 

The fish have come here by way of a primitive drive that ensures  genetic diversity and the very survival of their kind.

The sign in the counting room at the Vernon dam seems to still hold out hope for a Salmon run. The CRC is negotiating a path to restore the river to a place that will allow the fish once again to be here in numbers as they once were. 

My grandfather Maurice Normandeau, a Canadian immigrant, worked as a troubleshooter on the dams up north for GMP. Wayne worked at Vermont Yankee for 27 years and is now with NorthStar. I write a blog about finding nature in Vernon and am one of the founding members of the Vernon Conservation Commission. 

But what I understand in my heart of hearts and as an educator, is that the true importance of all of this lies in the knowing of from where the songs of the river come.  We aren't ever going to discover that until we acknowledge that we cannot fundamentally remain adversaries with each other or with the natural environment. 

I first heard this song about the river when Joyana Damon, the music teacher at Vernon Elementary School taught it to her students. This is the song by Bill Stains that played in my head while writing this piece. I hope that you will listen to River (Take Me Along). - Norma Manning


Monday, May 15, 2023

RBWMA on Fox Hill


The fact that I don't like spiders is arguably proof that we don't have to enjoy something in order to understand the importance of its existence. Once, when I was a happy go lucky teenager, I reached down to pick up what I had thought was a big rubber spider on the basement floor. I was within millimeters of touching it when it snarled and pounced at me with it's huge hairy venomous venom injectors! The sheer adrenalin induced volume of my scream saved my life as the beast paused for enough of a split second to permit my escape. From that moment on, I knew on a deeper level that spiders were not to be trusted!  Over the years and with no further conflicts, spiders and I have come to a truce of sorts. Spiders are fine as long as I know that they are there. I won't be visiting Australia and its funnel web spiders mind you; but nor will I be applying broad spectrum insecticide to my property. 

I almost forgot to explain why spiders are so important, "spiders eat the equivalent (insect weight) of all the humans on earth annually."* 

Poison ivy is a valuable food source for pollinators, and a fall food source for birds and mammals, just don't come near me with it.

I rejoiced at seeing my first Baltimore Oriole of the season while sipping my morning coffee here in Vernon. The Oriole's striking beauty and song as it perched in our crabapple tree filled with blossoms was a moment to behold! We also saw a Turkey vulture feasting on gray squirrel road kill while on our way to the transfer station. I thought to thank the vulture for its good work as we passed by. 

Martin explains to his small gathering of Vernon residents that we are about to enter a Dry Oak Forest. The trees of interest are Red, Black, White, Chestnut and Scarlet Oak. I take note of his mention of Scarlet oak because I recently learned that a survey of the oak will take place this spring at the Rec. Scarlet oak's expansion northward of its range is thought to be a measure of Climate change. The USDA Forest Service Northern Station Research Center's Current Forest Inventory and Analysis map can be viewed by selecting this link.

 Martin himself discovered a small stand of wild Dogwood of which he alerted the state. Martin says that the state visits the stand when in this section of the Roaring Brook Wildlife Management Area. There is also Sassafras, a more abundant tree to the south and a tree that I have never personally identified. We are in Martin's backyard on Fox Hill in Vernon about to explore a parcel belonging to the Roaring Brook Wildlife Management Area.

Martin's discussion turns to the historic management of this parcel. He tells us that the indigenous people used fire to clear land for crops below the hill across from Newton Road. However he says, there is no evidence that this RBWMA parcel has ever been farmed.

This idea resonates with me, as not far from Fox Hill, Wayne and I located Pitch pine which is a fire dependent tree. Later, while looking into Dry Oak forests, I discover that they occur on south facing slopes and glacial sand plains. Fire adapted natural community's make up Dry Oak forests. These communities declined as fires were increasingly suppressed. **  All of this, I learned after I walked the woods wondering why its understory lacked the rich, diverse plants that we were accustomed to seeing in Vernon.

"Why are Dry Oak forests important?" I ask myself. I had agreed to this hike mostly because Martin is so darn excited about a vernal pool within the area and know nothing of the surrounding forest. 

Just steps behind the Fox Hill housing development, the area has largely been left untouched by logging and other forest management tools for decades. On this April day, the understory growth seems limited and the forest floor is littered with crunchy leaves and open space. 

Martin mentions the presence of laurel, Eastern Hemlock and White pine. We also come across Striped maple, birch and beech. 

Martin points out the hardwood trees that indicate logging had once taken place here decades ago; and I learn the answer to many wonderings on past hikes. Hardwoods with multiple leads emanating from a single trunk just feet off of the forest floor is a result of a cut stump. The larger the tree, the longer it has been since it was cut down. 


I ask Martin if he knows what kind of tree this is. Martin isn't certain but thinks it is White oak. I ask because the tree has an old injury with "curled" edges. Among the possibilities causing this old injury is fire. Insects are processing this tree into sawdust.

As I write this post, I wonder how old this hardwood tree is. Located in a natural community known for stunted growth, I also wonder if the botany guidelines for oak growth rates are even relevant. If this is White oak, it takes thirty years for a White oak to reach full growth under typical conditions.

Nearby Wayne points out Lowbush blueberry.

I find  native Witch Hazel,  I fail to recognize it in the field even though I planted one by my driveway several years ago of which I am quite fond of. Google Lens reminds me that I have a lot to learn.

The few logs that we find are barren of moss and fungi. The moss that we find is sparse and reserved for the base of standing trees.

 Birch with moss at the base of the trunk.

Where are the rocks I wonder. As if on cue they rise up out of the leaves.

 I wonder where Wayne, Martin and the others have gone off to?

Finally the forest floor gives way to green

We are at the top of the hill and I see my first butterflies of the season. Three in all with one landing on my trekking pole. 

Here, next to a tiny sprig of Wintergreen, is a piece of white quartz. Wayne and I see quartz on most of our hikes in Vernon.

How is it that trees grow on top of rocks?

The rock is unworried as it knows that time will release it back to the earth.

Ahh, here they are! All at once I regret missing Martin's knowledge of this place.

Chestnut oak is more common in western Vermont

Red oaks have a lifespan of 100 to 150 years

Deer hair
Cracked acorn shells

The Striped maple grows to thirty five feet tall.

American Chestnut almost certainly will succumb to blight before maturity

Highbush blueberry thrives on the edges of the large vernal pool that Martin has led us to . The seasonal pool is the only sign of water we encounter on this venture. While Lily pond is flooded, the town forest muddy and the Broad brook flows swiftly, this RBWMA area is home to an oasis of sorts within an uncharacteristically dry VT landscape.

The pool is alive with small black tadpoles swimming above oak leaves.

Martin scouts for more Sassafras trees while standing next to one. In 2014 this article was written about Vermont's largest Sassafras tree on Huckle Hill at Stonehurst.

Feet from the shore, the earth returns to a Dry oak woodland. 

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, the importance of a Dry Oak woodland is that it provides many species of animals with a valuable concentrated source of food. I wish you to take this away from this writing; just because you don't like something, or understand something, or ever have the chance to see something, that doesn't mean it isn't important.

Martin told me about the premier vernal pool on Fox hill a couple of years ago. This Spring Martin was very gracious in offering to be our guide. We might have never had the opportunity to visit this state conserved land had Martin not allowed us to cross his property. Had Martin not been so  knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his backyard, a Dry oak forest, I most likely would have thought the area unremarkable and failed to write about it. 

I wish to extend our gratitude toward Martin for his generosity. -Norma Manning