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A view of the St. Michael's College Natural Area, part of which will be protected from agricultural development through a new easement agreement.

Saint Michael’s College (SMC) has announced that it is partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) wetlands easement program to help protect 163 acres from agricultural use or development.

The college says it’s the first Vermont institution of higher education to work with a federal wetlands easement program in the long-term preservation of natural habitat. The partnership will help reduce harmful phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain and support the institution’s educational and research programs -- which are part of its increasingly popular and active Natural Area across Route 15 from the main campus.

A key motivator of the federal program, both in Vermont and nationally, is reducing phosphorus in waterways. The SMC Natural Area has been farmed by the college for over 100 years and by local farmers who have leased the land for the last 30-plus years. With the Winooski River running along the edge of the area, phosphorus-rich fertilizer could potentially run off from the 163 acres through future developments if not protected.

The area is “a huge educational resource for us,” said St. Michael’s biology professor Declan McCabe, who was the primary initiator of both natural preservation in the Natural Area and its far-greater use by the college and community in 2016-17. He noted that multiple classes and departments are using it now and have for the past few years, including biology, chemistry, environmental studies and science, English, fine arts, and even computer science as faculty get ever-more creative. 

“We’ve had two art exhibits over there, we have four miles of hiking trails, there’s a lot of cross country skiing, and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps did work there building steps along a steeper trail,” he added.

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A map detailing the St. Michael's College Natural Area and where the easement will take effect.

McCabe has been working closely with James Eikenberry of NRCS in Colchester on the easement and related projects.

“One issue with the site is that it’s a flood plain, and when there are floods, phosphorous heads to Lake Champlain,” said McCabe, who regularly had been using the Natural Area for classes and personal exercise before many others discovered it for all those purposes.

According to McCabe, the NRCS was only interested in the 163 acres being protected because they are suitable for farming, unlike the surrounding land that is hilly, swamps, or wetlands.

The college said it is set to receive "significant" funding from the USDA as part of the agreement, allowing for the desirable preservation by transferring development rights. Since the land straddles the Colchester and Essex border, a future source of funding for projects in the area could possibly come from those towns’ “phosphorus budgets” which receive incentives from the federal and state governments to help reduce harmful runoff, according to McCabe.

Part of upcoming work in the Natural Area is plugging a culvert in order to retain water on part of the site that was artificially drained for agriculture -- eventually restoring the wetlands to something closer to what the original Abenaki residents would have known, said McCabe.

With the planned work to restore some of the wetland area’s original natural character going forward with the easement in place, McCabe said, “We’re taking the site back 200 years, essentially.”

The St. Michael’s biology professor said that farmers and conservationists have different philosophies on the best way to utilize land and that local farmers might not agree with the easement. However, he noted that his priority and that of others at the college is conservation, and enough land is already available for meaningful and well-established college farm programs.

“It’s not that either philosophy is wrong,” he said, “but you have to decide which is right for you as a landowner.”

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