Use restrictions likely limited at Berlin PondStefan Hard / Staff File Photo
Berlin Pond stretches out at the foot of the Northfield Mountains in this aerial view taken in July.
BERLIN — The commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife believes that people fishing for reasons to restrict recreational use of Berlin Pond are going to come up empty.
“You’re talking about dispersed, low-impact, non-motorized recreational use,” Commissioner Patrick Berry told members of the Berlin Select Board this week. “Frankly, if folks are looking for a problem with those potential uses, or a reason to keep people off the pond, from a biological and ecological and water quality perspective, they just don’t exist.”
Berry was asked to attend Monday’s meeting in order to field the board’s questions about the potential for regulating duck hunting and ice-fishing on a pond that has been the center of a passionate and prolonged debate since the Vermont Supreme Court struck down century-old restrictions in May. He said he jumped at the chance to set the record straight.
“This has been a fairly frustrating thing for me to follow because there’s been a heck of a lot of assumptions and ... misconceptions about what the impacts (on the pond) would be,” he said.
In Berry’s view, duck crap literally poses more of a threat to the pond that serves as Montpelier’s drinking water supply than the low-impact uses that are specifically allowed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Biological waste from waterfowl on the pond is something that would be a bigger concern than someone floating around in a plastic kayak, and certainly... (Montpelier’s) water treatment system can handle that,” he said.
Berry acknowledged the controversy that the Supreme Court’s ruling has generated — one that recently resulted in the formation of the grassroots group “Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond” and prompted Clint Gray, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, to attend Monday’s meeting.
“This is a special place to a lot of people,” Berry said. “It’s a really neat pond that you folks have within your (town) and there are clearly a lot of strong feelings around how this pond should be managed.”
However, Berry stressed his department is more than capable of managing the pond, as it does thousands of miles of rivers and streams and nearly 300 other lakes and ponds around the state.
Berry spent a fair amount of his time preaching tolerance and stressing there is no reason Berlin Pond can’t be safely shared by everyone from hikers, bikers and birdwatchers to canoeists, kayakers, and anglers.
“It’s certainly worth a shot to allow people to share that resource,” he said.
Although Berry didn’t deny there can be occasional conflicts between competing uses, they are reasonably rare and don’t often linger.
“People generally find a way to open their hearts to other users and get along and appreciate the fact that these are your neighbors and friends,” he said.
Berry, who was accompanied by the state’s chief game warden, Col. David Lecours, said he appreciated the board asking what he characterized as “perfectly legitimate... perfectly fair” questions involving duck hunting and ice fishing.
Town Administrator Jeff Schulz said some residents who live around the pond, including at least one who attended Monday’s session, had expressed concerns about duck hunting given the proximity of some homes to the pond. Schulz said the board was also interested in determining whether ice fishing could be regulated.
According to Berry, the town has no authority to prohibit either activity — a fact that was underscored by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“Because hunting, fishing and trapping are in the (state) Constitution as a right of all Vermonters, the municipalities are necessarily prohibited from regulating those activities on their own,” he said, noting Vermont is one of only two states that have such a constitutional provision.
Berry said any request to prohibit duck hunting would have to be by petition to the state’s 14-member Fish & Wildlife board. That independent panel generally considers requests that stem from “biological or ecological” concerns.
“Frankly, with Berlin Pond those issues just don’t exist right now,” he said, admitting safety-related concerns could pose something of a jurisdictional challenge for the board, given constitutional guarantees and the department’s vast experience with similar bodies of water.
According to Berry, waterfowl hunting occurs without incident on lakes and ponds around Vermont — including those that have significantly more camps and homes even closer to the water than is the case on Berlin Pond.
“We don’t have safety problems generally speaking,” Berry said.
Resident Robert Green, who said his home is located about 300 feet from the pond, behind a small stand of trees, said that didn’t make him feel any safer, and a woman who said she regularly walks around the pond claimed she too was worried.
“How are you going to prevent people from being hurt if you’ve got guns firing in every direction?” she asked.
Berry said hunters, as a rule, “don’t shoot toward people, houses or cars,” and argued that experience elsewhere in the state doesn’t seem to justify prohibiting the activity on Berlin Pond.
“We just haven’t seen those kinds of problems with waterfowl hunting even with houses that are closer than that,” he said.
Berry said he doubted Berlin Pond would be overrun by duck hunters, if only because of the “self-limiting” nature of the sport.
“There’s a social carrying capacity to places where people hunt... which limit the number of folks you generally find hunting at a given place at a given time,” he said.
When it comes to ice fishing, Berry said the activity couldn’t be prohibited, but the use of gas-powered augers, and possibly shanties, might be restricted.
“That would probably be something that would be open to regulation,” he said, noting the auger issue might require a rule change from Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears.
Current regulations prohibit boats with gas-powered motors from using the pond, but the regulations are silent on snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and gas-powered augers.
Berry thanked the board for inviting him to the meeting and asking good questions, but urged them not to overreact.
“I would recommend giving it a chance,” he said. “It’s smart to get out ahead of problems you know are coming, but in our experience you may be looking for solutions in search of problems.”
Berry said his department moved swiftly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to delineate a loon nesting area on the pond and to institute a catch-and-release order for bass. He said he stood ready to address problems if they eventually surface, but wasn’t prepared to assume that they will.
“If there are issues after the fact we can always address them,” he said.
Berry’s department has offered to create an access area to the pond on a small parcel of town-owned land that includes 85 feet of shoreline. The Select Board recently posted that property pending the results of a town-wide referendum that will be on the November ballot in Berlin.
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