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‘A generational opportunity’

Green Mountain Conservancy seeks to purchase land in West River Valley for a wildlife preserve — a plan that would add 626 acres of semi-wilderness to the Deer Run Nature Preserve in Dummerston, Brookline, and Newfane

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As nature preserves go, the ridgeline property rising up from the West River as it straddles the towns of Dummerston, Brookline, and Newfane doesn’t look much different from the rest of the vistas one sees while driving on Route 30 west of Brattleboro.

Yet these 626 acres make up a parcel so biodiverse that it includes representatives of nearly every important species of flora and fauna in the Green Mountain State.

It is one of the few large semi-wilderness areas left in the West River Valley, according to Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department biologist Forrest Hammond.

The nonprofit Green Mountain Conservancy (GMC) is in the process of raising $410,000 to purchase, preserve, and conserve this property.

GMC President Mary Ellen Copeland said that doing so would protect the land from “activities that would destroy its benefits for biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and [that would] eliminate it as a critical part of an identified wildlife corridor between the Connecticut River and the Green Mountain National Forest.”

The property was owned by Nicholas Mercede, a Connecticut developer who died in 2018. The Mercede family is in the process of selling off his holdings in the West River Valley.

“This is a generational opportunity,” said Copeland. “The variety of wildlife there is astounding. It’s the kind of place that needs to be conserved forever.”

This is the second phase of the GMC’s plan to protect almost 1,000 acres of contiguous land.

The Mercede property abuts the Deer Run Nature Preserve, 287 acres on the far-southern end of the Putney Mountain ridgeline in Dummerston and Brookline.

In last year’s first phase, the conservancy raised $223,000 to buy that land from the Wilson family, who had owned it for many years. Copeland called this parcel “one of the few large and unfragmented parcels of land left in the area.”

The existing Deer Run Nature Preserve has a well-used hiking trail. Copeland said the trail, designed and built by Roger Haydock and other volunteers, immerses walkers “in the magic of this complex forest system.”

But Copeland said the larger Mercede parcel — or “phase two” of the Deer Run preserve, as GMC calls it — is an even more important part of the West River Valley’s ecosystem.

In a letter to the GMC, Hammond wrote that “Vermont Fish & Wildlife has always considered this area as being regionally important and is known as the Camp Arden Deer Wintering Area. The area continues to serve as wintering habitat for deer, but just as importantly, it provides quality habitat for a great many other wildlife species.”

Hammond added that the Mercede parcel was “unique in having a variety of upland habitats while also having large fields with nesting bobolink and other grassland birds, as well as a host of wildflowers that are visited by a great variety of pollinators.

“This parcel is also remarkable in having more than 2 miles of undeveloped riparian area along the West River,” he said.

The existing parcel of the preserve was recently named as Windham County’s representative to the national Old-Growth Forest Network, a project that seeks to enumerate a confirmed or potential old-growth forest in every county in the country.

While technically not old-growth forest, the woods have not been heavily logged for at least 100 years, Copeland said. Some trees in the two parcels have survived the various clear-cuttings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“It is amazing to wander around up there,” she said.

In the wetlands areas of the preserve, invasive species — plants from outside the natural habitat — are crowding out the native plants. Over the summer, Copeland said, four young people from Youth Services worked with a forester and GMC board member Dan Dubie to begin the process of removing this growth from the area and replanting the site with native willow.

Over the long term, Copeland said, GMC hopes to connect the Deer Run trails with Windham Hill Pinnacle Association’s trail network and the West River Trail. The organization also is looking to make the preserve accessible to the public.

Safeguarding this parcel and preserving its aesthetic value and recreational resources will not just help the environment, she said — it will also encourage tourism and support the local economy.

“As with everything these days, COVID-19 disrupted our efforts,” Copeland said. “But we’re very close, and we have a lot of good people helping us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #592 (Wednesday, December 16, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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