By Beniamino Nardin, Harwood correspondent
Members of the Waitsfield Conservation Commission presented a three-phase plan for developing trails on the town’s Scrag Mountain at a public forum this week.
The Waitsfield Conservation Commission held its public forum via Zoom on Monday, November 29, to discuss the plans for trail expansion at the Scrag Mountain Forest.
“The conservation committee and trails commission worked very diligently to come up with an engaging and enlightening proposal,” said Phil Huffman, who led the Scrag Mountain trail commission. “We’ve been working towards this night for years,” said Huffman, who has been on the commission since 2003, “[to share] what we envision for a modestly expanded trail network at Scrag Mountain.”
Huffman explained that Scrag Mountain is “an amalgamation of parcels” of land, not as cohesive and interconnected as it ought to be. A comprehensive plan for Scrag’s reworking was first proposed in 2012, and it was amended in recent years with the acquisition of the Gateway parcel, a new stretch of land leading to Scrag Mountain. The committee has spent the past year putting the finishing touches on the proposed plan for the new trail network at Scrag.
“In the last year we wanted this to be as inclusive and transparent as possible,” said Huffman. There was much community involvement, including a survey last winter as well as an earlier public forum.
LIMITED TRAIL OPPORTUNITIES
Presently, there are limited trail opportunities on Scrag. The management plan would expand Scrag’s trails while maintaining the preservation of the land as much as possible.
The goals for the plan include supporting sustainable forestry, maintaining natural habitat for native species and conserving biodiversity, protecting aquatic resources, creating opportunities for educational and community uses and offering open space for recreational activities.
There are 750 acres of land on Scrag Mountain, which is small in the overall context of The Valley, commissioners said. Even so, the conservation commission aims to see how Scrag Mountain fits within the broader landscape of The Valley, how it can provide accessible opportunities for public recreation that are compatible with other goals and work in tandem with activities across The Valley.
Last winter’s survey found that 80% of people going to Scrag enjoy hiking and 40% relish in the quiet and solitude.
The commission has been working with Kai and Lisa Koitzsch, wildlife experts who have studied wolf behavior and the moose population in Yellowstone National Park. Kai Koitzsch spoke about the ecological importance of the high elevation beaver pond and the potential negative ecological impacts of building trails near it. “The [Scrag beaver pond] is one of very few active beaver ponds that exist over 2,300 feet,” said Koitzsch. It provides a safe east-west travel corridor for mammals and nesting habitat for birds. Scrag Mountain acts “like a highway for wildlife.”
There is a great deal of wildlife diversity on the summit, and it is especially crucial for the Vermont moose population. “Moose winter up in the drainage of the beaver pond to the south,” said Koitzsch. They forage and rely on unique conifer cover on Scrag. “If the area is disturbed too much, we risk beavers leaving the pond and the colony failing, and we risk eliminating the winter refuge for the moose,” said Koitzsch. In New England, the moose calf mortality rate is 60-90%.
“This perspective was one of the important inputs we used,” said Huffman. “The professional perspective was very informative and important for us to take into consideration, [and it] helped us shape the proposed trail.”
The proposal for the land consisted of three phases. The first phase tackles the lower part of the mountain, rerouting the waterfall trail to provide a better vantage point, be more environmentally sustainable and eliminate the risk of eroding the trail. The second phase will work to restore the beaver pond and repair damages caused by human interference. This section will include creating a spur trail south of the beaver pond so that hikers can come within 15-20 feet of the water’s edge instead of accessing the pond directly through the trail, ensuring less erosion and disturbance. The third phase would reroute the longest middle section of the summit trail, as the current trail has been consistently degrading. The newer trail would be a gentler and more winding trail.
The conservation commission plans to provide sustainable trail-based opportunities in the next year or so.