As Feds Weaken Wetlands Rules, Locals Eye Greater Protections For Otter Creek Swamps

Feb 6, 2019

The state’s largest wetlands area stretches 15 miles along the Otter Creek in Addison and Rutland counties. Local groups have started talking to the state about how to provide greater protection for the Otter Creek wetlands, as the Trump administration seeks to roll back national wetland protection rules. 

The wetlands area along Otter Creek is richly diverse and hosts rare plant and animal species. It also serves as a giant sponge capable of absorbing flood waters. That value was demonstrated during Tropical Storm Irene, when Middlebury was spared much of the damage from the storm.

And a wetland in winter can be a very welcoming place. Marc Lapin, a professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College, explained that in general, wetlands are more hospitable when the water is frozen.

“One, it’s easier to walk actually,” Lapin said. “And two, there are no mosquitoes right now. People think we’re kind of nuts for going out in places like this during mosquito season.”

Lapin, who is also a member of the Cornwall Conservation Commission, teamed up with three people from the state wetlands program recently to get a better sense of what’s out here in this section of Cornwall swamp.

We should note that a swamp is just one type of wetland. There are also bogs, fens and marshes.

“The things that really matters in wetlands are how high the water gets, how low the water drops, how high peat builds up … and if there’s water movement that brings oxygen and nutrients,” Lapin explained. “And so there’s amazing complexity in here with those factors. And a lot of it’s related to what’s happening underneath the ground.”

As we meander through alder shrubs and around green ash trees, Lapin challenged Tina Heath and Charlie Hohn from the state wetlands program to identify what looks like a bare twig poking out of the snow.

Hohn was initially flummoxed, then gets it right.

“False nettles,” he said, peering in for a closer look. “Boehmeria cylindrica.”

"As an entire wetland it provides all 10 functions and values that have been identified as being important to protect in the state of Vermont. And that ranges from your recreational aspects, to your water quality, obviously your flood storage. We saw that during Irene." — Zapata Courage, state district wetland ecologist

The 3,500-acre Cornwall swamp is within a state wildlife management area, which means it’s pretty much protected from development.

“But that’s not true of the entire Otter Creek wetland complex, which is sort of what we refer to, you know, from Middlebury down to Brandon,” said Zapata Courage, a state district wetland ecologist for Addison, Rutland and part of Bennington counties.

Courage is working with local conservation commissions and other interested groups on the first steps to what could be greater protections for more of the 15,000-acre Otter Creek wetlands.

“As an entire wetland it provides all 10 functions and values that have been identified as being important to protect in the state of Vermont,” she said. “And that ranges from your recreational aspects, to your water quality, obviously your flood storage. We saw that during Irene.”

In 2011 Irene pummeled the state with heavy rain, causing widespread flooding in river valleys. But here, the Otter Creek spilled over into the surrounding flood plain and wetlands, which soaked up the surge. Middlebury was mostly spared.

“UVM did a study to look at if the volume and velocity that was experienced in Brandon had been maintained all the way through to Middlebury, what would have been the resulting damage,” Courage said. “And the calculation was $1.8 million.”

So there’s clearly an economic value to these wetlands. They also filter and clean the waters that drain into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain, and they provide a home for rare species like the endangered Indiana bat.

Scientist Marc Lapin checks out the rich organic material revealed by a fallen tree in the Cornwall swamp.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Nearby Cornwall Swamp Wildlife Management Area is another parcel owned by the Nature Conservancy, which calls the entire area the "most biologically diverse swamp complex in New England."

Lapin said wetlands like this serve as nature’s reservoirs for biodiversity as the climate changes and invasive pests spread across the landscape. He pointed out that the wetland forest along here has already been altered.

“There’s a butternut behind us, a dead butternut. So there used to be a lot of butternut in this forest along Otter Creek, and that’s another one that’s been lost to disease: the butternut canker,” he said. “So we’ve already basically lost elm and butternut and we’re about to lose ash from this ecosystem. There’s a lot of stresses on our forests.”

All of the Otter Creek complex is defined as a state Class II wetlands, which means they’re protected with a 50-foot buffer, and permits are required for development within the wetlands. There’s some preliminary movement to reclassify all or part of the complex as Class I wetlands, which expands the buffer to 100 feet and development would be allowed only if there’s a compelling need to protect public health and safety. However, under either classification, farming and forestry are still permitted within the buffers.

Lapin said the Cornwall Conservation Commission has started talking about that Class I protection. He called the wetlands an oasis of diversity.

“This swamp, except for these few fields along the edge where it’s better drained, has never been cleared,” Lapin said. “So the biodiversity in here is – it’s not even known yet. And we value that.”

"[Cornwall] swamp, except for these few fields along the edge where it's better drained, has never been cleared. So the biodiversity in here is — it's not even known yet. And we value that." — Marc Lapin, Cornwall Conservation Commission

Absent state rules, wetlands protection defaults to the federal government. And while the National Park Service has named the Cornwall swamp as a national natural landmark, that designation does not come with any extra layer of federal protection.

Zapata Courage, the district wetland ecologist, said the community focus on the wetlands is happening as the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump has moved to roll back federal wetlands protections.

The Otter Creek complex spans several towns and involves multiple landowners, and Courage said the discussions about reclassifying all or part of the complex are at a very early stage.

“This may never get beyond this stage, right?” she said. “It might not. It may be an overwhelming process. And that’s fine. The fact that these conversations are even happening to begin with, that the questions are being asked, that there’s a level of recognition of the value of the wetlands within their communities … that itself is a win.”

The conversations continue Thursday evening when representatives from several town conservation commissions meet in Cornwall with state officials, landowners and interested environmental groups to talk about what to do next.