Trails and tribulations at Treasure Island

As stated in the Wildlife Action Plan, preventing degradation of these corridors is a high priority.

Trails and tribulations at Treasure Island
Discussing the rerouting of a trail; left to right, David Roth, Lucas Stepno and Sean Ogle, Trail Programs Director at Upper Valley Trails Alliance

Many people are familiar with Thetford’s Treasure Island, a recreation area on the shore of Lake Fairlee. The main attraction here is usually the beach and swimming area, along with the swings, play area, and ball courts.

It’s less evident that the property continues northward as a long stretch of over 1200 ft of un-exploited lakeshore, backed by woodlands and clearings. It was described by one visiting biologist as something you’d find in the wilds of Maine, rather than on a developed lake in Vermont. The narrow sliver of land, roughly 300 ft wide (or less in places), is sandwiched between Route 244 and the water.  

But the mere fact that it is wild, mostly forested, and bordering a lake makes it ecologically significant. The VT Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Connecticut River Conservancy report that an approximately 300 ft wide waterside buffer may be used by the following: waterfowl nesting, beaver habitat, mink foraging, dabbling ducks, short-distance migratory birds, reptiles, amphibians (herps), and small mammals. Even a 200 ft buffer can support kingfisher, brown thrasher, vireos, woodpeckers, cardinals, herps, and small mammals. (Reference #1). The area is infrequently visited, allowing wildlife to forage, nest, access the water, and, just as importantly, travel along the lakefront, undisturbed by the human presence. It is a mini-refuge, one of the few remaining on a heavily developed lake.

And indeed, the state recognizes the critical importance of such undisturbed waterside habitat, something that has become increasingly uncommon in Vermont. Shorelands harbor different species of plants and animals from the surrounding land and thus increase biodiversity, sometimes by as much as 50 percent.

The Federally mandated VT Wildlife Action Plan  is a comprehensive document that identifies strategies to prevent Vermont’s wildlife from dwindling towards a threatened or endangered species status. The single most important strategy is to protect and restore habitat. Regarding wildlife and lakes, the Plan ranks “loss of riparian, shoreline and littoral habitats from land and water development projects and activities” as an issue that needs to be addressed with high priority. Higher even than the ongoing degradation of water quality and algal blooms in our lakes through phosphorous and other pollution. Also highly ranked among problems of lakes is the “loss of migration and travel corridors to and from habitats via alteration and conversion of home range….”

For years the wooded north section of Treasure Island has not been used for recreation and was seldom visited. It bears traces of a former parking area, now overgrown, a dump site, and neglected old trails. But this is about to change. A group of volunteers, the Treasure Island Advisory Committee, have launched an initiative with the help of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance to build new trails there, presumably with the backing of the Town Manager. Formal input has not been sought from the Selectboard. Committee member Doug Tifft, of Fairlee, wrote, “I am particularly focusing on establishing nature trails on the underutilized north and south ends of the property.” However, areas that humans view as “underutilized” may, in fact, be the opposite from a wildlife perspective.

Trails are generally regarded as a “non-consumptive” recreational use and therefore deemed harmless. It takes a dedicated scientist and wildlife expert like Sue Morse to uncover scientific literature on trails that shows that, depending on size and location, they may be anything but benign.

When we walk a trail, we don’t often encounter wildlife. That is because they sense us coming from a distance and are long gone. The intrusion of humans into formerly secure habitat causes alarm, stress, and fleeing. It makes animals waste precious energy and may contribute to mortality in times of food shortage. Human intrusion sends a signal that the area is unsafe for foraging or breeding.

The impacts of a trail extend far beyond its physical footprint (thousands of feet away for some species.) The effect in an area only 300 ft wide would be significant.

Most people are not aware of the subtleties of wildlife behavior. One study found that a single pedestrian can result in less singing by bird species that are sensitive to disturbance. Song is fundamental to breeding behavior and if enough singing is interrupted, birds don’t establish a breeding territory. It is also likely that this undeveloped strip of lakeshore facilitates the movement of animals to and from the adjacent wetland at the north end of the lake. Animal travel corridors are vital for connecting populations to allow out-breeding and genetic diversity and for repopulating vacant habitat. As stated in the Wildlife Action Plan, preventing degradation of these corridors is a high priority.

Of course, the Treasure Island Exploratory Committee is acting with good intentions. They don’t mean to harm wildlife or make “recreation vs wildlife” choices. They hope this trail will encourage quiet contemplation of nature, and they aim to raise funds to install a couple of benches. Doug Tifft, who is also the abutting landowner and champion of the successful loon nesting raft, believes that because Treasure Island was purchased with 50% federal funds, it obliges Thetford to devote the whole parcel to recreation use. The actual wording of the Land and Water Conservation Act under which the property was acquired is that  “Properties shall be kept reasonably open, accessible, and safe for public use.”

Lucas Stepno kindly roughed out a trail route, and the committee agreed to some modification to reduce its impact to the lakeshore. They won’t run the trail right next to an active beaver lodge at the water’s edge, though they will create a spur trail towards it.

Doug Tifft; the pile of sticks in the background is the active beaver lodge

They will direct part of the trail along the side next to Rt 244 where there is a meadow and some small wetlands. Lisa Niccolai, coordinator of the LakeWise program, and Peggy Willey, chair of the West Fairlee Conservation Commission, discussed planting native flowering shrubs around the meadow and adding wetland plants to make “a soggy patch of ground” into a wetland feature.

One of the small wetlands can be found quite near the parking area

Even so, as Russell Hirschler, executive director of the UV Trails Alliance pointed out, the best practice for trails is to make a loop, or else people will start making their own trails. And one side of a loop should not be visible from the other, otherwise it encourages people to cut across, causing impacts like trampling of vegetation. Inevitably, the dimensions of a suitable loop will spread out the human presence in this already narrow strip of land.

And this is just the first trail-building phase. A proposed second phase will extend the trail into the wetland at the extreme north end of the property. Here, a “loon look out” will be built, facing the loon nesting raft. Perhaps a raised boardwalk will be added in the marshy stretch of the shore. People will gain access into a refuge that, up till now, rarely experienced human incursion. Will it disturb the loons? The general rule, across several loon preservation groups in the Notheast, is that observers must stay 200 ft or more away from the nest.

Other ideas include opening a public launch site for canoes and kayaks at the north end that may include parking.  Boats would be embarking within sight of the loon nesting raft.

While there is some interest in monitoring how the trail will affect wildlife, there is no pre-trail wildlife data. A meaningful survey would take time (years) because wildlife come and go in response to seasons, life stage, and food availability. Dale Gephart, who has devoted years to nature observation around Lake Fairlee, may recruit someone to set up game cameras, but with trail construction scheduled to start in July, the window for making even preliminary observations is limited. The birds and animals that used this remnant of wild lakeshore before the new trail — and thus the true effects of the trail — will likely remain unknown.

Photo credit Li Shen
Reference #1;  State of Vermont, Department of Environmental Conservation, Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, “Riparian Buffer Procedure”, App.D-4, Draft 2001.

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