Conservation efforts take shape on Hogback Mountain

Former ski area is slowly be transformed into bird habitat

MARLBORO — The 591-acre parcel now known as the Hogback Mountain Conservation Area has gone through many iterations.

Bisected by Route 9, the property was a family-run ski area that operated from the late 1940s until the mid-1980s, when a development company purchased the land, and the open hillsides began to fill with trees.

The Hogback Mountain Conservation Association (HMCA), a non-profit group of local citizens founded in 2006, raised enough money through grants and generous private donations to buy back the property and, in 2010, donated it to the town of Marlboro to manage as a conservation area.

The Marlboro Selectboard appointed the Hogback Preservation Commission (HPC) to develop and implement a management plan for the conservation area. The HPC presented a proposal to the Selectboard this past February, in conjunction with HMCA and Audubon Vermont, to keep some hillsides in the former ski area clear. Their goal is to maintain the habitat for a broad range of wildlife including some of New England's rarest bird species.

Except for some low-impact recreational trails maintained by volunteers, the conservation area is largely undisturbed by humans. Activity there is subject to the terms of a conservation easement, a formal legal agreement held by the Vermont Land Trust, and does not allow any new permanent structures or soil disruption. These provisions ensure the preservation of habitat for myriad endemic and migrating species.

Throughout the history of the state of Vermont, land use has varied widely. Nearly two centuries of intensive agriculture and timber harvests left only 20 percent of Vermont forested by 1900.

“Now, it's the opposite,” says Hal Himmelstein, chair of the Hogback Preservation Commission. “Because the forests have grown back, they are good for certain species of birds but not others. Those birds that nest in areas just outside of woods are the ones whose habitat has been significantly compromised in the past 100 years.”

In the Hogback Mountain Conservation Area, the slopes that were previously cleared for skiers have been slow to reforest over the past few decades.

This cleared land creates the ideal habitat for many migrating songbirds that nest here in Vermont, species known to conservationists as “responsibility birds” because such a significant percentage of the overall population breed in the area that many conservation programs specifically target these individual species.

According to Himmelstein, the Hogback Mountain conservation area is an important component of a large travel corridor stretching from the Massachusetts border through Halifax and Marlboro to Newfane and beyond. This corridor creates contiguous open-spaced habitats between sections that would otherwise be fragmented.

The open space is crucial for many species, from black bear and moose to bird populations whose breeding habitat has increasingly been disturbed by development. “It's a little microcosm of a larger issue,” Himmelstein said, referring to habitat disruption.

HMCA merged its proposal with that of Audubon Vermont, an organization that is, according to its web site, “one of America's earliest organizations dedicated to conservation of birds, other wildlife and essential habitat.”

The program is designed to maintain these habitats for the continued use of warblers, thrushes and other species in the Hogback Mountain Conservation Area.

Two years ago, Steve Hagenbuch, a Conservation Biologist, approached the Hogback Preservation Commission with Audubon Vermont's initial plan.

“[Steve] located five good management units that were parts of the old ski slopes where we could maintain them and continue to cut them back,” Himmelstein said. The areas he identified are known as Early Successional Habitat (ESH), which are “areas of vigorously growing grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees which provide excellent food and cover for wildlife but need disturbance to be maintained,” according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Hagenbuch's goal in formulating the Forest Bird Initiative (and a goal of the similar proposal from the HMCA with which it was reconciled) was to keep the ESH in its current state to maintain these areas of nesting for the migratory songbirds.

The proposal calls for keeping about 3 percent of the total conservation area in a perpetual state of ESH, cycling through clearing the undesired vegetation every 15 years, a period of time that the HMCA feels is very manageable.

While the “responsibility birds” are the primary concern, the plan also stresses continued sensitivity to the needs of other species. In practice, this means cutting back most types of reforesting plants that do not provide food for other local species.

“You want to keep beech trees because they produce beech nuts that are a great source of food for black bears,” Himmelstein said. “Those should be left because you want to encourage and ensure that bears that go through the property have that to feed on.”

Himmelstein named several other types of plants that will be preserved, including oak trees and fruit-producing shrubs. “[The shrubs] provide the soft mast that is good for birds but also good for bears,” he said.

Instead of using big, disruptive equipment to do the clearing, the HMCA is planning to rely heavily on volunteer labor to clear tagged trees in the late summer and early fall.

“This is not a project to keep ski slopes open; we think of this as an educational and scientific mission,” Himmelstein emphasized.

Local elementary and middle school students have been involved in the conservation area for several years, tracking porcupines, fisher, and snowshoe hare and performing small experiments.

Himmelstein said that HMCA hopes to formalize the schools' involvement with this project in the near future, helping to track the advent of returning species and the arrival of new ones.

“We have put a lot of thought into [the proposal], and it has been vetted by biology faculty at Marlboro college,” Himmelstein said. “Everyone involved is very supportive and excited about it.” At February's meeting, the Marlboro Selectboard gave the project its full support. “The key thing now is to have some volunteers. This will be our big challenge.”

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