New crossing allows turtles to travel in peace

Friday December 30, 2011

VERNON -- The endangered spotted turtles of Vernon now have a variety of secure pathways to choose from while crossing the railroad tracks that run parallel with Route 142.

For the better part of a week, New England Central Rail hired ECI Rail Constructors of South Burlington to install 15 turtle crossings over a 700-foot section of track to assist the rare species' journey to their documented nesting area. The new openings will prevent future deaths of the spotted turtles as they attempt to reach their vernal pools.

"What happens is the turtles will get in between the two rails, and in the summertime if they are in there for too long, they will starve or bake in the sun," said ECI Foreman Roger Hutchins. "These crossings will be good for this little section here."

Hutchins was part of a five-member crew constructing the crossings. On Thursday morning, the ECI team had 12 of the sites completed.

Drew Christiansen, a track operator with ECI, said the crew digs out the ballast in between the railroad ties, pulls two of them out, places a steel structure on top and leaves the stone out of the middle portion to allow the turtles room to crawl underneath before replacing the ties.

"I guess they walk down the side of the rail until they find a crossing, with there being 15 of them, they are bound to find one of them," he said. "Every 40 feet is a turtle crossing and it's placed because there is a swamp on each side of the tracks, so they go back and forth to lay their eggs."

The sites of the crossings were based on the natural patterns of the turtles.

ECI crew members strolled along the tracks just minutes before the southbound Amtrak rumbled down the line. They walked by small ponds and streams lining each side of the built-up railroad tracks, all of which are covered with a thin layer of ice on this chilly December morning.

"This swamp in Vernon is one of the only places in the Northeast the turtle has been found," Christiansen said.

Charles Hunter, assistant vice president of government affairs for RailAmerica, Inc., said the turtle crossing project was an environmental requirement of the high-speed train project.

"We need to make certain accommodations for the environment, and the turtles were one of them. We were glad to put those crossings in so we don't interfere with their natural habitats and the way that they move about the area," Hunter said.

Vermont is one of several states in the Northeast that have received federal money for the high-speed rail grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Transportation agencies around the region hope to renovate more than 500 miles of passenger rail to improve connection times and spark economic growth.

RailAmerica owns the New England Central Railroad.

The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) is currently on the state endangered species list. It is a smaller reptile with a variable number of round yellow spots and usually has a colored blotch on each side of its head.

Mainly the turtle resides in Virginia, the Carolinas and other southern states, but also extending along the Eastern seaboard from Maine down the New England beaches. Isolated populations of them have been found in southeastern Quebec, Canada and into northern Vermont, but the habitat in Vernon is the only known site in the southern region of the state.

The state acquired a parcel of Vernon land to protect the only documented population of the spotted turtle in Vermont in 2008. Subsequent research led to the discovery of a second nest in a nearby wetland not hydrologically connected to the one previously purchased.

Former Vernon Selectboard member Peggy Farabaugh pushed for the state's acquisition of the turtles' habitat during her three-year tenure. After first becoming familiar with the variety of reptiles in the town while taking trips through the wetlands with her children, Farabaugh has promoted conservation of the spotted turtle.

She called the addition of the 15 crossings great news.

"It's wonderful to see that our work on the Selectboard has finally come full circle for the spotted turtles. So many times, I think that Selectboard members (and other town officials and volunteers) feel they're working hard but not making much of a difference," she said. "Here's proof that our efforts do count ... the success of this project speaks volumes for the people of Vernon who are not willing to sit idly by and watch as a species is forever lost from the face of our earth."

Chris Garofolo can be reached at or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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