ATHENS -- When Bob Anderson set out to take a long walk one day in 2003 he had no idea the journey would end up taking almost 10 years to complete.
His doctor at the time recommended that Anderson go for long walks and so he set out from his home in Saxtons River on that cool fall day to explore the lands around the Athens Dome, a plateau in Athens full of wetlands and undisturbed forest.
Anderson, who is a naturalist, thought the land was special and as he studied the land and plants there he realized the area needed to be preserved. The land contains the northeastern bulrush, an endangered plant in Vermont, and the area is home to a rich wetland environment that supports moose, bear and other animals.
Through the years Anderson worked with local officials, state agencies, non-profit environmental groups and even the Vermont Electric Power Company to find a way to conserve the property.
Last week the state finally competed that deal and about 400 acres around Athens Dome have now been preserved as public land in what is the newest wildlife management area, or WMA, in Windham County.
"This whole project has taken on a life of its own," Anderson said this week. "I always thought that if it was meant to be, there would be no way to stop it, and if it wasn't meant to be, there would be nothing I could do to make it happen. We just kept going. I'm ecstatic. I can't believe this has really come to pass.
The very long road that led to the state's announcement included private and public funding sources from state and federal agencies. It required approval from the Athens and Grafton selectboards and hours of volunteer work from local conservationists who were determined to preserve the land.
"This is very special land," Anderson said. "And this means it will be open to Vermonters to use forever. In this age when more and more land is being parceled and posted this is a significant step in keeping land open and accessible for everybody."
The Department of Fish and Wildlife owns more than 80 WMAs, totaling more than 118,000 acres. The WMAs are open to the public and include areas to hunt, fish, view wildlife and hike.
VELCO got involved in the Athens Dome land after the company started acquiring land as part of its major expansion, which came to be known as The Southern Loop. As part of that project the company had to preserve wetlands on another piece of land for any wetlands it damaged as part of the electric line expansion. The wetlands within the Athens Dome project were a perfect fit and the company purchased the land, but the very complicated title search took years to complete. The company was finally able to reach all of the former property owners and the land was officially turned over to the state last week. The area is now known as the Turner Hill Wildlife Management Area.
In the coming years the state hopes to develop two access areas, with kiosks and parking areas along the Grafton-Townshend Road and on Turner Hill Road.
The Nature Conservancy also stepped in to purchase an additional 80 acres and a $300,000 federal grant was used when the endangered plant was discovered on the land.
Department of Fish and Wildlife Land Acquisition Coordinator Jane Lazorchak said that as the state faces ever increasing pressures from development and the loss of open spaces, any time land is preserved it is a reason to celebrate.
The state does not establish trails within the WMAs, but the area's proximity to the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association land will make it easy to link trails within that system with the newly acquired parcels.
Lazorchak said the state will give the Pinnacle Association access to the state land to develop trails around Athens Dome.
Most of the land acquisitions for WMAs extend existing tracts and Lazorchak said it is rare for the state to acquire and open an entirely new wildlife area for the public.
The state will hold a special celebration on the land later in the spring.
"This is a very big deal for us," Lazorchak said. "When we take the initiative to start a new public ownership of land it is a big step for us. It's very rewarding to be able to say that this land will be preserved forever. It is an amazing area."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer