Sand Bar slated for highest protection

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State wildlife biologist John Gobeille is pictured at Sand Bar State Park last week. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

State wildlife biologist John Gobeille is pictured at Sand Bar State Park last week. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Milton’s Sand Bar wetland is set to be declared a Class I wetland in the coming month, granting it the highest level of protection.

The 1,359-acre spot in Sand Bar State Park, which spans into Colchester, is one of four Vermont wetlands up for the designation.

“We’re looking at wetlands that are unique and irreplaceable,” said Laura Lapierre, Vermont’s wetlands program director.

John Gobeille, a wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, attested to the park’s uniqueness. To him, it’s the nicest place in the state.

The park is split up into two parts, one being the state park and the remainder serving as a wildlife management area, or refuge, where the wetland is located.

“I see so much wildlife here that I don’t anywhere else,” he explained.

Sand Bar is home to 29 rare, threatened or endangered species and is the most visited state park in Vermont, Gobeille said.

Known for having one of the highest density of nesting osprey in the state, the refuge also houses spiny soft shelled turtles and the first bald eagle nest on state land.

A transitional zone between Lake Champlain and the Lamoille River, the wetland will be protected from further harm or alteration through the Class I protection, Lapierre said.

With the change in protection comes a larger buffer, from 50 feet to the Class I default of 100 feet.

This shift had some people worried, the pair explained. As a state park, Sand Bar provides recreational use and also hosts neighbors to the north and south.

Standing in Sand Bar’s parking lot last week, Gobeille pointed across the open waters of Lake Champlain to the opposite shore to a cluster of residential homes. He said some homeowners worry the extended buffer zone and higher protection will alter their ability to use their docks and boats in the same capacity.

To set their minds at ease, Lapierre assured only new proposed activities, projects and structures will be scrutinized with a finer eye – existing structures are grandfathered.

If a new project were proposed, even if by Fish and Wildlife or VTrans, which operates the highway that splits the wetland’s two marshes in half, the agencies would have to constitute a compelling need for public health and safety, Lapierre said.

Gobeille said his department doesn’t have any plans in the works.

As for past projects, Gobeille’s department put in a system of dikes surrounding the wetlands for waterfowl management in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The structures provide open water for wildlife, which creates diversity in the wildlife community, he said. With the dikes, deeper water is available where cattail doesn’t grow.

Under the new protection, the dikes can be reconstructed and maintained, because they’re also grandfathered, Gobeille said. But structures like the waterfowl banding sites, which have been permitted in the past, will be more difficult to undergo under Class I.

Home to the first Vermont wildlife management area, the second biggest marsh in the state and a plethora of history, the distinctiveness of Sand Bar has been clear for a long time, Gobeille said.

State wildlife biologist John Gobeille is pictured last week during a stroll around Milton's Sand Bar State Park. The park's wetland is set to gain a Class I protection next month. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

State wildlife biologist John Gobeille is pictured last week during a stroll around Milton’s Sand Bar State Park. The park’s wetland is set to gain a Class I protection next month. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Vermont conserved the park in 1920, at the start of the state’s conservation movement, Gobeille explained. Around that time, the state hired a federal biologist to scout the state’s wetlands. At the top of the biologist’s list of important wetlands was Sand Bar, Gobeille said.

“You kind of know Sand Bar is going to be important, just because of its size,” he said.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that a Vermont biologist took a group of ecologists from the wetlands program out on Sand Bar waters. The Milton site was one of over 20 wetlands visited, and again, it rose to the top.

The crew surveyed each wetland for 10 different functions and values. They concluded Sand Bar provides all 10, which is remarkable, said Lapierre.

On November 29, the wetlands program filed the 2017 wetland rule with the secretary of state and the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules – the final step for creating a rule, or protection change, Lapierre said. The rule includes a Class I protection for Sand Bar, Black Gum Swamps in Vernon, Dennis Pong Wetlands in Brunswick and Chickering Fen in Calais.

Placed on notice for public comment, the rule changes were discussed at three October public meetings. The proposal will go before the committee at a Jan. 12 hearing, Lapierre said.