Borders Without Customs
Early September, 2011
The once and future Eastern Wildway does not stop at the United States/Canada border; and indeed in places is at its wildest near there. Moose (pictured left, photo by Larry Master Images), bears, bobcats, coyotes, otters, osprey, owls, and others of our wild neighbors may live parts of their lives in the Northern Green Mountains of Vermont and parts in southern Quebec’s Sutton Mountains – same range, different name -- without ever knowing they’ve crossed an international border. Conservationists in the US and Canada are working to keep it this way, to make sure the border remains biologically invisible, even if culturally important.
(Yes, I was reminded, people do need their passports, in this time of security fears, when crossing into Canada; and fortunately, I’d brought mine.)
Climate chaos was again on my mind as I headed toward the Northern Green Mountains. I’d just returned to the Adirondacks after a much too long trail break in New York City, lengthened by days when Hurricane Irene shut down public transit into and out of the city. (Margo had wisely taken the last train out; and Denise and Justin declined my proposal to make the long walk north!) Though forecasters had warned of dire consequences to New York City, once again a big storm misbehaved and hit hardest where it wasn’t expected to do much. Parts of the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were flooded and damaged, yes; but the most dramatic effects, arguably, were in southern Vermont, the Catskills, and the eastern Adirondacks, not far from my home, where scores of roads and bridges were washed out. I was saddened to see businesses I frequent in Keene Valley, NY, shut down and towns-people shoveling out feet of mud.
Until a couple years ago, when my cabin was smashed by a microburst, I thought the Northern Appalachians and Adirondacks relatively safe from the severest effects of human-caused climate change. While granting that no one storm or drought or heat wave can be directly attributed to carbon levels in the atmosphere, I cannot help but think that recent weather extremes -- severe microbursts in eastern Adirondacks in May 2010, inordinately wet winter for much of Northeast in 2011, record flooding the following spring, a fatal heat wave this summer, and now a storm that has disabled half a state – are warning us of what’s to come if we don’t stop polluting and cutting down forests.
As an editorial aside, I would opine that we ought to see the recent demolition of infrastructure by floods (pictured right, photo by Free Press) as not just a warning that we must prepare for climate chaos but also an opportunity to close some unneeded and indefensible roads, dams, and bridges. It is time to practice ecological austerity – decide which roads, dams, culverts, bridges, and buildings are too costly, ecologically and economically, to maintain and let the lands there revert to wild Nature. Ecological austerity is especially needed in floodplains, where managed retreat (to borrow Reed Noss’s apt phrase, which he employs for the Florida coastline) and ecological restoration should be our responses to roads and houses swept away by raging floods. Of course, this must all be done with compassion and fairness, compensating land-owners for lost property but recognizing that in the long run, we as a society cannot afford to keep roads and buildings in floodplains and in other places subject to extreme natural disturbances (including wildfire); and we can buffer ourselves from the severest effects of storms by protecting watersheds, wetlands, and broad areas of natural forest along and around water bodies.
Anyway, with so many roads and bridges out, I had to choose my route northeast carefully. Normally, I row across Lake Champlain in a sturdy boat that easily holds my bicycle. This time I had to kayak, in a boat that only precariously held the bike, as my oars had washed away in last spring’s floods. Fortunately, the lake was very still as I crossed, and the calm morning afforded me quick passage through Vermont’s side of the Champlain Valley as I cycled northeast toward Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest mountain and one of the Northeast’s most extensive areas of alpine habitat.
After camping on Long Pond, and enjoying loon music at dusk and dawn, I followed the Long Trail up Belvidere Mountain. The fire tower on the rocky summit (3360’) affords grand views in all directions. The Northern Green Mountains from that high perspective look to be well-clad in forest, with relatively few major tears. Northern Vermont’s broad gentle valleys have long been occupied by farms and small towns, and just to the east of Belvidere Mountain sits an ugly old asbestos mine – a Superfund site. At present, though, bear, fisher, marten, bobcat, coyote, otter, eagles, osprey, and other wide-ranging species can in comparative safety move from north of Interstate 89 in Vermont at least to Canada’s Autoroute 10, connecting Montreal and Sherbrooke. Even here, however, species must navigate through challenging bottlenecks, particularly in narrow river valleys where roads and development are clustered.
Pictured left with Conrad Reining of Wildlands Network (second from left), Charlie Hancock, and me, my hosts and guides for Northern Green rambles included Corrie Miller (second from right) and Bob Hawk (pictured left), Northern Green Mountains coordinators of the Staying Connected Initiative. Other wonderful hosts are Joan and Bill Hildreth, land owners in Montgomery, VT and involved with local groups, Cold Hollow to Canada; Melanie Lelievre, executive director of Appalachian Corridor Appalachien (ACA); Stephanie Beaudoin (pictured bottom photo, on left), also of ACA, who skillfully translated for me in French-speaking Québec; and Stansje Plantenga , president of the Ruiter Valley Land Trust.
These good folks shared with me a hopeful land, where a broad range of conservation groups and concerned citizens, both American and Canadian, are cooperating to keep the forest intact and the streams flowing freely, for the benefit of flowers and trees, birds and butterflies, trout and turtles, parents and children. Again, though, climate chaos puts at risk even some conserved lands, as storms hit with increasing frequency and strength. Joan & Bill Hildreth led me on a hike through their land, on which they’ve carefully laid out miles of hiking trails, to a few acres where hundreds of stout hardwoods had been leveled by furious Irene.
Wind-throw is a critical, diversifying process in northern hardwood forests, being a key natural way – along with beaver impoundments, ice storms, and insect outbreaks – that clearings are created. Unlike southern and western pine forests, hardwood forests of the Northern Appalachians and Adirondacks seldom burn. Instead, wind, ice, insects (particularly the eastern tent caterpillar), and beavers create the early succession communities, meadows, canopy openings, and ponds that enhance species diversity at a landscape level. Three of those four key natural disturbance agents, however, wind and ice storms and insect outbreaks, seem to be on an upswing, in frequency and severity.
Deciphering what is natural and what is human-caused becomes harder and harder to unravel, as we spread our pollutants and exotic species. The worst outbreaks in the US these days are of alien insects and tree pathogens, lacking native predators, which have ravaged populations of American chestnut, elm, and beech, and are now threatening balsam fir, ash, and maple trees as well. The invaders we most fear in the Northern Appalachians and Adirondacks include hemlock wooly adelgid, killer of most of the big hemlocks in the Southern Appalachians, and now spreading as far north as southern Vermont; sirex wood wasp, deadly to most eastern pine species; emerald ash borer, already having killed most ash trees in large parts of Midwest; and Asian long-horned beetle, which could hit most of the hardwoods that ash-borers spare.
Enough gloom and doom; readers of these wildway scouting forays know well that we must take all necessary measures -- including restrictions on raw log and nursery stock commerce and more study of road impacts-- to prevent the further spread of invasive species and the importation of new ones. The Northern Green Mountains, so far, grow healthy forests which have been affected by logging and invasive species but remain resilient and intact. The Ruiter Valley Land Trust, ACA, Nature Conservancies of Canada and the US, Northeast Wilderness Trust, Two Countries One Forest, Staying Connected Initiative, Open Space Institute and other good groups are forging the necessary agreements – from voluntary land-owner agreements to forest certification to conservation easements to Forever Wild land acquisitions – to ensure that a bear or moose born in one country can freely move to the other.
As attested by the many conservationists and students who came to TrekEast presentations in Vermont and Quebec, the Northern Green Mountains are among the East’s most promising areas for Staying Connected. On the Canadian side of the border, I was met by dozens of Quebec conservationists (pictured right local journalist taking picture of group of Canadian friends), all committed to keeping that border permeable to wildlife. It is fenced and cleared in places, unfortunately, but the big animals (including occasional drug smugglers, yes, but more often the desirable creatures) can still get through; and if we do our work well, they’ll find good wild forest on both sides forevermore.
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
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