Public meeting set for May 8: Black Gum Swamp to receive more protection

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VERNON — The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation may reclassify Black Gum Swamp to better protect its unique wild life.

The DEC has a three-tier classification system for all wetlands. Currently Black Gum Swamp is a Class II wetland but will soon be upgraded to a Class I. The classification system was started in 1990. Up until last year there were only three Class I wetlands in Vermont, now there are six.

"Some [wetlands] are tiny like a soggy backyard, whereas some are really important for endangered species and wildlife," said Laura Lapierre, a wetlands program manager for the DEC, during a guided tour of the swamp on April 28. "If you were to lose or degrade that wetland it would be hard to reproduce."

Lapierre said Black Gum Swamp is one such landscape that would be difficult to reproduce and giving it a new classification is necessary to meet public health and safety.

One of the features that makes Black Gum Swamp unique is the Black Gum trees. These trees aren't endangered and if you travel 400 miles south the trees are common, according to the Watershed Management Division of the DEC. They are not, however, common in Vermont and some of the trees in the Black Gum Swamp date back over 400 years to a time when Vermont's climate was warmer.

"We're not looking at protecting one species but the whole population," Lapierre said. She noted that the Red Maple trees and the Black Gum have created a unique habitat, which also makes way for unique species. The swamp has four rare, threatened or endangered species and two uncommon species.

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To change classification, the Watershed Management Division must meet with the internal committee of administrative rule. Then they must meet with the legislative committee of administrative rule, which involves a public hearing process. The classification change was initially approved by the Vernon Select Board in the summer of 2016. But the swamp has since been removed from the formal rule change process, after the Select Board rescinded its letter. When her division first approached the town, Lapierre said, there was a lot of support from the residents. but once the proposition got to legislation concerns started to pop up. One of the factors currently affecting the swamp is a logging company — Vern-Mont LLC.

Lapierre said there was a misunderstanding that there would be no logging in the buffer zone, period. This was, in part, because the Watershed Management Division believed legislation had already been passed forbidding logging, which was not the case.

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Class II swamps can receive a permit to affect a portion of the land as long as it can be replicated. The only activity currently done at the Black Gum Swamp is logging and trails. Under Class II, loggers must log from a 50-foot buffer zone to the swamp. Under the Class I designation the area protected would increase to a 300-foot buffer zone. This does not mean that loggers wouldn't be able to ever log within the buffer zone but they would have to apply for a permit to determine that the integrity of the swamp wouldn't be harmed by logging, "Which can be done," Lapierre said. She says the buffer zone is mainly to protect the trees from falling down from the wind. The trees need a thick forest to protect them because they're standing on swamp soil.

Trailgoers also needn't worry, according to Lapierre, who said there are already plans in place to add more trails in areas that are currently inaccessible. If additional trails were to be added within the buffer zone they also would need to be reviewed to make sure that they weren't impacting project integrity.

Another concern raised was whether or not the town would be held liable if an individual were to mess with the swamp. Lapierre said that though action would be taken to address the violations, the town would not be held accountable unless it was sanctioning violations. The classification change was postponed until concerns had been addressed.

Josh Unruh, Vernon Select Board chairman (Unruh is also a Reformer employee), said that the board fought to keep the swamp Class II once they learned what the classification would entail. "The reason we wanted to keep it in Class II previously is so that we can maintain local control by the town. We don't want the state dictating."

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Though Unruh didn't think logging was a big issue, said that the town has a new River and Trails Committee, and that the buffer zone might interfere with their ability to add new trains. Unruh was unsure about how many permits actually get granted to do work inside Class I buffer zones. Lapierre said that, to her knowledge, two permits have been issued.

"It is rare that we receive a request to perform work within a Class I buffer zone," she said.

The swamp's classification will not be changed without approval from the public, the ICAR and the LCAR.

A meeting to address concerns and learn more about the shift from Class II to Class I will be held on Monday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at the Vernon Town Office Building.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.


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