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A Retired NEK Fish Biologist Reflects On A Career In Conservation

A person in a hat and waders holds up a big fish
Courtesy
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Len Gerardi is a retired Fish and Wildlife Department fish biologist.

Len Gerardi worked as a fish biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for more than 35 years. Independent producer Erica Heilman took a long drive with him to talk about his life in conservation.

Lenny was the fish biologist for the Northeast Kingdom, and he was pretty famous up here for working every angle to advocate for fish and their habitats. He retired five years ago, and I wondered what it’s like to look back on a life in conservation — at all the change that happened during his tenure, and since. We took a long drive on back roads. He showed me some great fishing spots, which I am not going to share with you, and we talked about his life in conservation. Here’s Lenny.

Erica: "We’re at the access point?"

Len: "We’re at the Willoughby access, but I’m going to tell you a little story. See this little brook here? It comes down, it’s a tributary to the lake. In the springtime, rainbow smelt run up in the spring to spawn. So we get a call that there was this terrible silt discharge down this brook coming from upstream.

"So I got my son, asked if he wanted to go. We got this video camera. We started down at the lake, and we worked our way up, and there’s just this smell of putrefying eggs under this sediment, an inch thick on the stream bed. Now there’s an inch of dying eggs and half an inch of sediment over the top. This is terrible. We worked our way upstream. We get into the middle of this pasture and much of it had been cedar and had been logged and all this runoff from this log job.

"There was this dairy farm up there, and I’m videotaping and narrating up above, and down come these guys, and they are loaded for bear. It’s the farmer. And basically he confronts me about what I’m out there doing, and it’s like, 'I just got this complaint. I’m taking a walk. It’s not posted,' or whatever. And he got madder and madder and had bulging eyes and red face, and he takes the video camera, raises it overhead, and he smashes it on the ground. Ultimately we had to get a state cop to go up to try and recover the camera, which we couldn’t, because he threw it in his manure pit.

"But it was an example of one of the aspects of the job. This matters. The sediment coming down through bad land management practices, it’s consequences for an important component of the ecology of the lake, and for the value of the fishing."

water running over rocks with trees rising up from the riverbanks
Erica Heilman
Willoughby Falls in Orleans.

Erica: "On a personal level, you look at that sediment on those dead smelt eggs and you look at this lake even that we’re driving by, you feel a personal responsibility to these resources?"

Len: "Absolutely. It’s more than a job. There is some deep connection that I think all of the fish biologists and wildlife biologists that they have to the natural world that they study, that they protect, that they conserve, that they’re responsible for managing. And it’s kind of special, really. I think."

Erica: "You’re dealing with resources that are constantly at risk, so I wonder if there’s something inherently heartbreaking about the work."

Len: "There are things that become disappointing. I spent a lot of time working up on Maidstone Lake, one of Vermont’s lake trout lakes … a deep cold water lake. And over my 35 years of working fish, I watched that go from having traditional little 20 by 20 camps to having these huge lakeshore, year-round mansions around it, and I watched the shoreline vegetation, the overstory of the trees, gradually be removed, and I’ve watched that lake basically change from something that was this fairly remote lake to something that I now refer to as the city of Maidstone Lake. It’s like looking at a bygone era."

It’s more than a job. There is some deep connection that I think all of the fish biologists and wildlife biologists that they have to the natural world that they study, that they protect, that they conserve.
Len Gerardi

Lenny showed me dam projects he’d worked on and rivers where dams had once been. He seemed to know every back road that connected to every body of water, and toward end of this drive, we ended up in a pull-off that overlooked a bridge.

Len: "So one of the things I’d get involved with is review of proposed bridge jobs by the Agency of Transportation. And here on the Clyde River was a bridge that was in need of replacement. And what the agency wanted to do was, they wanted to put in what they call the 'twin cell box culvert' right where this bridge is over here.

"So they were going to basically funnel the river through this unnatural-looking thing. And we were starting to get very seriously engaged in restoration of landlocked salmon in the Clyde River. And so I argued with the Agency of Transportation that that was really going to be detrimental to the restoration of salmon. It was going to forfeit a certain square footage of salmon spawning habitat, which was at a premium, and that really what they needed to do was a single span.

"The agency didn’t want to do that for cost reasons and some other reasons. And right here there used to be back in the 70s, a whitewater slalom competition. And it was this really popular event. So in addition to this being important fish habitat, it also had this recreational component. And I contacted some people in the paddling community that I knew and I said, ‘You know what they want to do is put this 50-foot-long pier in the middle of the river.'

"And wouldn’t you know, a couple of them actually submitted letters to the Department of Environmental Conservation and AOT, basically opposing the original plan. And I was at a meeting in the head office with these different players, and I remember the chief of engineering for the Department of Environmental Conservation stood up and he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Gerardi. You subverted this process.’ He was ripped."

I will come to this bridge, and I will look at that free span, and I will say, ‘Lenny, if you accomplished nothing else in your whole career, you managed to make it so this isn’t a twin cell box culvert … that this is a clear span of natural river.’
Len Gerardi

Erica: "So what is your sense of satisfaction? Do you feel like you accomplished something? Do you feel like it was just spitting in the wind?"

Len: "If nothing else in my career, I will come paddling down the Clyde River — which I do paddle — and I will come to this bridge, and I will look at that free span, and I will say, ‘Lenny, if you accomplished nothing else in your whole career, you managed to make it so this isn’t a twin cell box culvert … that this is a clear span of natural river.’"

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