Photos courtesy of Steve Hagenbach
Mount Hunger and the Worcester Range
Little River State Park
The mosaic quilt of forests and open land that defines Waterbury’s hills and valleys.
It is this iconic landscape, and the special places that many of us know and love, that draws people to Waterbury from near and far. Even for those who spend a lot of time interacting with our natural environment it is often difficult to perceive changes to it, despite the fact that change is always occurring. Though often subtle, Waterbury’s natural landscape has been reshaped over the past 20 years.
Taking a backroads tour around Waterbury, you may notice new homes popping up here and there. One tucked back into a woodlot, another out in an open field. Perhaps it is just a new driveway making you wonder “what’s going on back there?” While this type of growth can benefit our economy, the cumulative effects of increasing development and the changes it imposes upon the landscape, can be of significant detriment to local and regional wildlife populations. Forest fragmentation, the breaking up of large, intact forest blocks into smaller, disconnected patches is one such way that increasing development can take its toll on wildlife. Beginning around 2010, an increasing awareness was developing around the value of the roughly northern 1/3 of Waterbury as a regionally important wildlife corridor. This area, known locally as Shutesville Hill, provides one of the last remaining unfragmented travel corridors for wide-ranging wildlife, such as moose, bobcat, black bear, and fisher, to safely move between the large forested habitat blocks to the east (Worcester Range) and west (Green Mountains). The Waterbury Conservation Commission was one of the first groups to bring this unique aspect of our Town to the public’s attention through a series of walks and talks. Protecting Shutesville Hill requires a diverse set of tools, from land management to land conservation to public policy. In recognition of this the Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor Partnership was created with representatives from more than 10 local, regional, and statewide organizations. As of 2020 12 parcels encompassing 879 acres of forestland have been conserved, helping to ensure wildlife has room to roam for many, many years ahead.
Further along our tour of Waterbury we also notice sections of roadside seemingly dominated by one particular type of shrub. It is a plant that leafs out earlier than others in the spring, puts forth a showy and pleasant smelling flower in early summer that produces red and orange berries later in the season. The plant is now everywhere. Unfortunately, “it” is one of the bush honeysuckles, a group of non-native species to Vermont, which has become so invasive that it is outcompeting native vegetation in many places. Over the past 20 years bush honeysuckle, and a variety of other non-native plants, have become prolific throughout Waterbury. Many of these plants were either intentionally or unintentionally brought to North America from Europe and Asia. They also have been used for landscaping because they were thought to enhance wildlife habitat (which we now know not to be true). They are transforming the landscape, particularly along roads and forest/field edges, from one that supported a diverse mix of native vegetation to one that is much less diverse and of lower overall ecological value.
In addition to the bush honeysuckles, other non-native plants that are widespread locally in Waterbury include Japanese barberry, burning bush, multi-flora rose, wild chervil, and Japanese knotweed. The latter being particularly common along sections of the Winooski River and other wet areas. Landowners are encouraged to learn to identify non-native plants and implement strategies to eradicate or control non-native species to rewrite the ending of this pending ecological tragedy.
As if the proliferation of non-native plants in our community over the past two decades were not enough, a new agent of forest change has in all likelihood made its way to at least the eastern half of Waterbury. The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), an insect native to China, eastern Russia, Japan, and Korea was first discovered in Vermont in 2018. Perhaps you have noticed those purple triangular cylinders hanging from ash trees alongside the road. These are EAB traps and are part of efforts to track and monitor the spread of the insect. As the name indicates EAB feeds on all species of ash trees, leading to death of a tree about three to five years after it is infested. [We are not aware of any way to protect the Ash.] As a tree species with ecological, cultural, and economic value, the potential loss of ash (most commonly white ash in Waterbury) from the forest is significant. As of 2020 the eastern half of Middlesex was a confirmed infested area, putting the area of Waterbury east of Route 100 in the high risk category. At the time of this writing, there is concern that the EAB will be confirmed in Waterbury very soon.
At first glance it may seem like the changes to Waterbury’s landscape over the past 20 years have been dominated by negativity. While it is true that people are responsible for many of the changes, good and bad, the next 20 years are filled with blank pages for our community to decide what to write on them. If we look to the past for guidance we will see many positive actions toward protecting our natural landscape; the creation of the above mentioned Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor Partnership, the recognition of the importance of Shutesville and other large forest blocks in the Waterbury Town Plan, the blocking of the placement of a cell tower and associated infrastructure on North Hill, the engagement of Waterbury residents in events focused on increasing awareness of our Town’s valuable natural resources, and the list could go on. There is now a call to action to protect this iconic landscape, and the special places that many of us know and love, over the next 20 years.