Circling Wildness

I couldn’t sleep last night. The night before I’d dreamt of disease, contagion, and fear, my mind just wouldn’t settle down. I didn’t have particularly bad thoughts swirling in my head. I thought about friends, and generosity, and kindness. I thought about nature and wildness.

The Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth

 

Northeast Wilderness Trust is proud to be an initial endorser of “The Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth,” along with leading international conservation organizations such as Rewilding Europe, Tompkins Conservation, and African Parks.

The Charter masterfully articulates, at a global scale, a hopeful vision that has long been the guiding principal at Northeast Wilderness Trust
—creating an interconnected system of wild habitats capable of supporting life’s full diversity and richness.

The Charter also recognizes that fulfilling such a vision—both in Northeast and for the planet—means we must take a two-pronged approach. The international conservation community must work hand-in-hand to protect the wild places that still remain, while simultaneously rewilding degraded lands and waters. With these actions coming together, there is hope that we can solve the dual existential crises of climate change and biodiversity collapse.

The Wilderness Trust celebrates and promotes rewilding as a boon for wildlife and people. The Charter outlines principals and action steps that governments, citizens, NGOs, and business can all participate in, to build a wild future for nature and a livable planet for humans.

Click here to read the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth.

 

New Wilderness Preserve Created in Bridgewater

 

BRIDGEWATER, VT – Northeast Wilderness Trust purchased 359 acres from Paedra Bramhall last week, creating the first privately protected, forever-wild preserve in the Chateauguay No-Town Conservation Area. The Wilderness Trust is a non-profit land trust that conserves forever-wild landscapes for nature and people.

The newly established Bramhall Wilderness Preserve is home to pristine cascading brooks, towering trees, and abundant wildlife. Protecting this land has been a long-time effort for landowner Paedra Bramhall, who was born in a rustic cabin on the property without running water or electricity in the 1940s.

“The fact that this dream I have had most of my life is now a reality [for] the acres my mom left me—that they are now and will be forever wild—is still sinking in,” said Ms. Bramhall. 

 

Streams shaded by hemlock groves offer prime habitat for native brook trout. Shelby Perry

Since Ms. Bramhall has left the land largely unmanaged for decades, the forest is already well on its way to returning to old-growth.

“Old and wild forests like the Bramhall Wilderness Preserve are among the best natural tools we have to address the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss,” says Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director of the Wilderness Trust. “They are remarkably effective at storing vast amounts of carbon, and they offer habitats to a wide array of species that will need space to move and adapt as the climate becomes hotter and more unpredictable.”

The Preserve offers wildlife habitat and a resilient ecosystem to wildlife large and small. Shelby Perry

The Preserve lies just south of the Appalachian Trail as it winds its way down from the Green Mountains to the Connecticut River. Nearly two miles of waterways, including the North Branch of the Ottauquechee River and two smaller tributaries, tumble through the steep hills of the Preserve. Dense hemlocks shade the water, creating prime habitat for native brook trout. 

Northeast Wilderness Trust is working with the Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) on the permanent conservation of the land. VRC and VHCB will co-hold forever-wild legal protections on the preserve. 

Nearly two miles of tributaries of the Ottauquechee River cascade through the land. Shelby Perry

“We are excited to partner with Northeast Wilderness Trust for the sake of public access to the rivers in the beautiful Bramhall Preserve,” says Lydia Menendez Parker, Assistant Director of VRC. “Low-impact recreational access paths from the parking pull-out will support those adventurers looking for a place to dip in the cool, refreshing waters and cast a line.”

VHCB played a key role in in protecting the land with a $160,000 grant. “VHCB is pleased to support the conservation of this special property,” said Gus Seelig, Executive Director of VHCB. “Situated as it is in the center of 60,000 acres of managed forestland in federal, state, municipal and private ownership, this core block of land will remain forever wild and provide permanent public access for swimming, hunting, fishing, and hiking. The Bramhall Wilderness Preserve will create a unique learning laboratory for scientists, naturalists, and educators to compare natural processes over time to the managed forestland surrounding it, helping community members and visitors to better understand the ecological benefits of old forest.”

Paedra Bramhall, who was born on the land, has been working for decades to see this land preserved as wilderness. She has left the land to evolve and change over time without interference, meaning that the forest is mature, and well on its way to returning to old-growth status. Daryl Burtnett

Last semester, Woodstock High School ran a Wilderness Studies class about nature, conservation, and wildlands. The students spent two field days on the Preserve for experiential outdoor learning.

“It is vital that students take time in school to develop their personal relationship with nature, wilderness, and society,” said Sophie Leggett, a student who served as Teaching Assistant for the class. “Moreover, we are lucky to be working with the Northeast Wilderness Trust to have a deep and meaningful educational experience with local wilderness. Using the Bramhall Preserve as a lens for more global thinking, this class is a step in developing personal and cultural values surrounding wilderness.”

BioBlitz at the Bramhall Wilderness Preserve in 2019. Chris Fastie

The Wilderness Trust prohibits timber harvest, vehicles, trapping, mining, agriculture, subdivision, and development on all forever-wild properties it protects. “Paedra has allowed nature to take charge on this land for decades and we will continue that legacy,” said Shelby Perry, Stewardship Director of Northeast Wilderness Trust. “From this day forward, the forest will always continue to grow old and wild per her wishes, providing diverse wildlife habitat and storing carbon indefinitely.”

The new Bramhall Wilderness Preserve is part of the Wilderness Trust’s Wild Carbon initiative. Through this program, the new Preserve will be aggregated with other Wilderness Trust properties across four states. The goal of the program is to sell carbon credits from the combined properties to generate funds for future wilderness conservation.

The Preserve is open to low-impact recreation such as hiking, swimming, fishing, hunting, and nature study. Shelby Perry

“We are far from living in a carbon-neutral world,” explained Sophie Ehrhardt, the Wildlands Partnership Coordinator for Northeast Wilderness Trust. “This carbon project will provide an original model for other organizations who want to preserve land. This program creates income from carbon storage rather than timber harvest.”

The Wilderness Trust’s first Wild Carbon sale was completed in 2016 on two of its Preserves in Maine. “Funding to protect wild places is scarce,” Sophie added, “so carbon credits are a creative way to build a wilder future.”

Although enough funds were raised to buy and create the Bramhall Preserve, the Wilderness Trust is still working to raise $204,000 to secure the long-term stewardship and care of the property.

To learn more about this land, visit newildernesstrust.org/bramhall. If you would like to support the Preserve with a tax-deductible gift, please visit donorbox.org/support-bramhall-preserve or call 802-224-1000.

 

Bearly Awake

Black Bears Emerge from their Winter Slumber

Many of my friends bemoan April in the Northeast as one of the worst times of the year. Dirt roads turn into mine fields of muddy ruts and potholes, melting snow and flowing springs turn trails treacherous and even make off-trail woods-walking messy. The trees are all still leaf-less, as though the mud from the roads is stretching brown fingers high into the sky.  Even the leftover snow is dirt-covered and dingy. 

I always jump passionately to April’s defense in these conversations.  April is one of my twelve most favorite months of the year and hopefully when you know where to look you will love it as much as I do. 

Ramps emerging from the forest floor. Shelby Perry

April is (usually) when most of the snow melts in our region, and while that may be sad for lovers of winter sports, it means that water is once again abundant in our landscape. With that water comes all of the things that rely on it to live, breed, and migrate.  Geese fly overhead, resting at lakes, ponds, and even flooded fields.  Amphibians begin their annual migration to breeding pools, singing merrily for all to hear.  The earliest blooming spring wildflowers start to poke up through the soil, unfurl their delicate new leaves, and drink in the sunlight before the trees leaf out and snatch it all away.  Melt water trickles down into the ground, displacing the gasses in the soil that have accumulated from winter decomposition, and releasing what we all think of as the quintessential smell of spring, geosmin.  April in Vermont is magic, if you know where to look. 

One of my very favorite signs of spring, and one that I often first see in April, is black bear (Ursus americanus) tracks. Sometimes staggering, sometimes determined, the prints tell the tale of one of our region’s largest wild predators, and spotting them always gives me a thrill. By now black bears are out and about (time to bring in your bird feeders!) and the females might even have some cubs in tow. It’s been a long process for all these bears to den up in the late fall and emerge five months later—a process that goes unseen but is nonetheless fascinating.

Bear tracks across Binney Pond at Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve in New Hampshire. Mike Przybyla

There is some debate about whether or not bears should be considered “true hibernators,” since they don’t dramatically lower their body temperature during their winter snooze. Yet they do spend the winter in a den, mostly sleeping.  Their sleep ranges from deep to light, and they wake regularly to scratch itches, shift positions, and stretch.  During this time their metabolism and heart rate slow down slightly so they burn fewer calories, which come from fat stores they’ve built up over the previous summer and fall. Adult bears rarely urinate or defecate in their dens (though newborn cubs do) because the slow use of calories stored in body fat generates less waste than eating. Bears also possess the impressive super power of “pee-cycling,” meaning they can recycle built-up urea into new proteins. This prevents the waste buildup from becoming toxic.

Bear tracks through mud at a property protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust in New Hampshire. Shelby Perry

Male bears and non-nursing females coming out of their den in the spring might weigh as much as 15-30% less than they did in the fall. Female bears have an extra challenge through their winter survival, as they often are also pregnant when they enter their dens. Mama bears are mostly asleep through their pregnancy, waking briefly to birth their cubs around January, and then hitting the pillow once again. The cubs, born around the size of chipmunks, will then nurse on their semi-comatose mom until spring, when she will emerge from the den up to 40% lighter than she was when she went in. 

Despite all this, bears don’t wake up hungry. Their bodies suppress their appetites starting in late fall, triggering them to stop foraging and start looking for a cozy place to hole up through the cold. Black bears would be unlikely to stay safely in their dens during the winter if they woke up hungry, so a hormone that simulates the feeling of fullness sticks around in the blood at high levels until well after it is warm enough for them to emerge. And when they do venture out they are, as you might imagine, pretty groggy and stiff. A bear may come and go from its den or other shelters several times while recovering from their winter sleep. Early in the process they blearily stumble and yawn, stretch and laze about, just like I imagine that I would if I slept for 5 months. Gradually, they regain their strength and stamina, and eventually their appetite too. To get a sense of the experience, check out this video of a bear in Minnesota waking up over the course of many days.

A mother bear scent-marks with her cub in Vermont. (c) Sue Morse

As mama bears begin to wake, their cubs are around three months old and weigh around six pounds— slightly more than a Chihuahua, but with significantly more fur! Over the summer the cubs stay with their mom. These three cubs were caught on a game camera last spring following their mom across the brand new Bramhall Wilderness Preserve in Bridgewater, VT.

As they wrestle and play their way through their first year of life, they learn what foods to eat, how to climb trees, and other bear necessities before entering hibernation alongside their mom in the fall.  This will be the last time they will share a den though, and the following April they will strike out on their own, seeking new territories where they can begin the cycle anew. 

 

 

Stop and Smell the Geosmin

 

Spring is a time of transformation. The sleepy silence of the cold white winter recedes into a decadent symphony of sound and color, slowly at first, but with continually increasing vigor right on through until summer. There is so much to see and hear during this time of the year that it is easy to overlook one of my favorite spring sensations: the smell.

Usually described as “fresh earth” or “muddy” the smell is one we all know well. I associate it with those hardy little flowers known as spring ephemerals that come up as soon as the ground thaws, producing both flower and fruit before the trees above open their leaves and soak up all of the available sunlight. Trout lilies and spring beauties and trilliums—just writing their names brings the smell of spring to my mind; but it is not these flowers that give us that springy smell. So just what is it that we have to thank for spring’s classic scent?

Spring beauty emerges from the forest floor in April. Photo by Shelby Perry.

It turns out the scent of spring is the very same substance responsible for the earthy taste of beets: a terpene known as geosmin. The name geosmin comes from the Greek words for “earth” and “smell.” Geosmin is produced by blue green algae and certain kinds of soil bacteria called actinomycetes. These bacteria break down plant material, and in the process convert another soil chemical (farnesyl diphosphate) to geosmin in a two-step process.

Geosmin exists in the soil year-round, but its smell is only noticeable under certain conditions—you might notice it when digging into soil, during spring thaw, and after a rain. This is because generally the gas pools in spaces beneath the soil surface and is only detectable when these pools are disturbed, like when digging turns over the soil or water soaks into it, displacing the gasses within. Sometimes the smell of geosmin is apparent before a storm hits, the result of decreasing pressure associated with the approaching weather causing the soils to off-gas geosmin and carbon dioxide that has built up beneath the surface.

With spring in full swing I hope you take the time to get out into the wild, where forests are coming to life and there is so much to see and explore. And while you are out there don’t forget to stop and smell the geosmin.

 

Welcoming Our New Board Members

Northeast Wilderness Trust is delighted to welcome four new members to our Board of Directors!

In the News: Muddy Pond & Binney Hill

 

This winter, two Northeast Wilderness Trust Preserves were featured in local news. A big thank you to the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript and Wicked Local Kingston for highlighting these special places and the wilderness message! Click below to read the full articles.