From the Notch to Lake Champlain

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From the Notch to Lake Champlain

Sun, 02/20/2022 - 3:01pm -- tim

Photo: Smugglers' Notch. Photos courtesy Vermont State Parks.

A parking lot project highlights the intersection of environmental protection, tourism, and the economy

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine Parking along Smugglers’ Notch is the Wild West.

People seeking to soak up the scenery along the narrow pass, hike the nearby trails, or photograph the 1,000-foot cliffs park their cars ad hoc along the road. In the process, cars end up in small stream beds or squishing rare plant species under their tires.

These parking practices harm the very alpine environment visitors come to enjoy and pose safety issues for motorists and pedestrians. They may also contribute to phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain.

A partnership hopes to regenerate sensitive ecological areas in Smugglers’ Notch by constructing formal parking lots.

This partnership includes the Lamoille County Planning Commission, the state Agency of Transportation, and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Not a sexy project to be sure, but the work represents a confluence of local needs: support tourism, promote economic development, and protect the environment.

The big-picture goal for the project is protecting water quality through a net reduction in impervious surfaces and runoff, said Seth Jensen, deputy director with LCPC.

“The Notch is the headwaters of the Lake Champlain Basin for both the Winooski on the south side of The Notch; the north side flows into the Lamoille,” he said. “So preventing sediment and phosphorus from entering the headwaters just literally has positive downstream effects all the way to Lake Champlain.”

Jensen said, “The Notch has a very sort of thin soil. It's also home to some alpine plant communities, and particularly plant communities that only live in that loose soil condition that you have up in the Notch.”

He added that the natural rockslides where some of these plant communities grow come right down to the road and flow into visitor trails.

Some of the unique plant species growing in The Notch include smooth woodsia, butterwort, deer-hair sedge, small-flowered rush, and grass called Agrostis borealis.   

“They're not charismatic megafauna, but they're still important,” Jensen said.

According to Jensen, the state has identified on Smugglers’ Notch at least 34 plants considered rare in Vermont and 10 species protected by the Vermont Endangered Species Law.

Photo: Smugglers' Notch. Photos courtesy Vermont State Parks.

As a result, The Notch has one of the highest concentrations of rare plant species in the state.   

The area is also one of the few nesting sites for peregrine falcons.

According to the state Fish & Wildlife Department, peregrine falcon populations were severely impacted by the pesticide DDT.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the state took steps to reintroduce the bird into Vermont. The falcons are considered a recovered species in Vermont and are protected at the federal level.

Jensen said that upgrading the parking, making stormwater improvements, and site restorations are estimated to cost $1.2 million.

Some of the project’s funding has come through the Lake Champlain Basin Program, the Northern Border Regional Commission, and a National Scenic Byways grant.

The LCPC also worked with staff from the state Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to develop a seed mix that includes native species and native species genetically appropriate for The Notch’s environment, said Jensen.

Providing the pandemic doesn’t disrupt the project’s timeline; construction on the new parking areas will start in the spring.

Photo: Smugglers' Notch. Photos courtesy Vermont State Parks.

Jensen said construction would happen in stages to pose the least disruption for commuters and visitors.

The parking project is one of several the Smugglers’ Notch partners have undertaken over the years, Jensen said.

“The Smugglers’ Notch partners are a group of public and private entities that have been meeting and working together on issues like this since the mid-1990s,” he said. “It's a huge legacy there, and that partnership has really been why all of these things can happen.”

To protect the sensitive environment, the partners have improved hiking trails and added signage to discourage people from walking on the rockslides. The partners were behind the construction of a fully accessible boardwalk near the bottom of The Notch.

The path is a popular place for taking photos — instead of in the middle of a state highway — and provides access for folks with mobility issues.

“This project is really a means, not an end, you know, nobody gets excited about a new parking lot,” he said. “But for Lamoille County, our local employment is really, really tied to the recreation and tourism industry.”

Visitors come to Vermont because of places like The Notch, Jensen said. The more they can enjoy such scenic locations, the more likely they will also visit the area’s villages and the more likely they are to return.

Unfortunately, without more interventions and projects like new parking lots, the way people use the site is damaging the unique alpine environment.

“We want people to be able to enjoy the natural area without damaging it because we want it to be in a good state 50 years from now,” he said.

 

Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Windham County.