Rare Forest Lies Hidden In Randolph Village

Front Page / May. 12, 2005 12:00am EDT

Rare Forest Lies Hidden In Randolph Village

Before early settlers cleared Vermont’s fertile lowlands for farm fields, the state’s rivers were rimmed with "forested floodplains" that served as natural sponges during high-water events.

Today, intact examples of forested floodplains in Vermont are rare, thanks to development pressures and agricultural uses.

Surprisingly, a beautiful example of an especially uncommon type of floodplain exists right in the heart of Randolph Village. It’s called a "sugar maple-ostrich fern riverine floodplain forest."

The wooded area, tucked between the Third Branch and the back sides of commercial lots on Prince and Pleasant Streets, and residential properties on Randolph Avenue, is what you see when you look over the back edge of the town’s Pleasant Street parking lot. The sandy floodplain is home to some unusual plant varieties, and a host of creatures, including deer, fox, moose, muskrat and beaver.

Forester Klint Wigren has had an abiding interest in Randolph’s floodplains for 30 years. The village section, he says, is "the capstone" of a "unique floodplain area" strung along the Third Branch, from north of Randolph to Bethel.

The 20-acre stretch in Randolph village has black cherry, black ash, and cottonwood trees, in addition to the sugar maples, and numerous other tree and bush species. According to Wigren, the village floodplain also has one black birch, which is a floodplain species, but not one normally found here.

The floodplain’s ground plants, in addition to ostrich fern, include vast areas of spiky green bottlebrush grass, bloodroot—now in bloom, wild ginger, and many more.

New Respect

Unknown to most, cherished by a few, and poorly used by some, this unique ecosystem is receiving some new respect and attention.

The Randolph Area Community Development Corporation, which owns about 15 acres of the floodplain area, is taking steps to conserve and manage its portion of this "ecological gem," according to RACDC Director Jeremy Ingpen.

RACDC would also like to encourage public enjoyment of the land, in a respectful way.

Ingpen said his interest in the land was sparked by a conversation with residents Harvie Porter and Marjorie Ryerson, who have for decades been keeping a careful watch on their portions of the floodplain, lying behind their Randolph Avenue homes.

RACDC acquired its 15+ acres of undeveloped floodplain years ago, Ingpen explained, because it needed undeveloped acreage to satisfy density requirements for the construction of the 48-unit Randolph House on North Main Street.

For many years, Ingpen noted, the RACDC parcel survived through "benign neglect." More recently, pressure on the resource has grown, with SUV, snowmobile, and mountain bike use.

There are other troubling problems: severe erosion of the sandy bank, and the steady march of invasive plant species, including Japanese knotweed and the exceedingly aggressive wild chervil.

Ryerson and Porter said this week that they have had to deal with all those problems—including littering, aggressive dogs, afternoon drinking parties, and even chainsaw-wielding Boy Scouts—over the years. However, in recent years, all other problems have been overshadowed by the alarming erosion that is taking away five to 10 feet of the sandy floodplain annually, especially on Ryerson’ and Porter’s short sections.

Recent bank stabilization projects, above and below the village floodplain, they believe, have speeded up stream flow and increased erosion pressures on areas that have not been "rip-rapped." Gravel deposits on the east side of the river may also be driving the stream into the fragile bank, Ryerson said.

RACDC Project

RACDC, which more commonly focuses on housing and other development projects, has enlisted several partners for its "first real conservation project," Ingpen noted this week.

One of the partners is Randolph’s Conservation Commission, which awarded RACDC a $1600 grant for some trail improvements. An informational kiosk, trail maps, and fencing to limit access to designated trailheads are planned. Ingpen noted that these trail improvements will be for the RACDC portions of the property, and signs will note where privately owned property begins.

The trail work should be completed by fall, he said.

Ingpen added that steps have already been taken to restrict vehicular access to the area.

A second grant, $3000 from the Wellborn Ecology Fund, will fund a comprehensive plant survey, the creation of a "management plan" for the floodplain, and written materials for the informational kiosk.

The floodplain’s vegetation was surveyed in past years, but Ingpen anticipates that the new report will chart recent advances by invasive species.

He is hopeful that others—the White River Partnership, high school biology classes, and the like—can volunteer hours to help carry out the management plan.

Forester Wigren, who is also a member of the Randolph Conservation Commission, is happy to see some positive public attention being directed to the floodplain. Attracting more people who care about the floodplain will help discourage inappropriate activities in the secluded woods.

Wigren, a hopeful kind of guy, is also thinking that the floodplain project might be the start of something greater.

There are a lot of interesting mini-eco-systems in our neighborhood, and the town of Randolph owns a number of them, including two forests and a meadow somewhere in East Randolph.

Randolph, he noted, even owns its own stretch of sugar maple-ostrich fern forested floodplain, further upstream, by the recreation area. Most of the disc golf course, established several years ago, is in that forested floodplain.

"The town has got a lot of properties that people don’t know about," Wigren said.

RACDC’s floodplain project, Wigren hopes, just might be the spark that will get more of the public to take interest in the little treasures in our midst.

By Sandy Cooch

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