State wetlands ecologists Charlie Hohn and Levi Keszey have their work cut out for them. The pair, with the help of fellow wetland ecologist Tina Heath, are in the process of bio-assessing, monitoring and updating the mapping of Vermont’s wetlands, of which there is no shortage. “Given enough funding and resources,” Hohn said, “we could easily have 10 people and never see most of the wetlands, because there are probably something like 20,000 of them in the state.” The team is newly formed in the Department of Environmental Conservation despite working on a project that has existed in one form or another for about 20 years. What began as an EPA-funded pilot in the late 1990s looking specifically at vernal pools in Northern White Cedar swamps, has expanded to a wider and ambitious assessment of a variety of wetlands statewide.   Why wetlands? Keszey started this year and Hohn started in 2016 when resources allowed for the first dedicated full-time position in the two decades of the state’s interest in the health of its waters. “Wetlands are critical to our watersheds,” Heath said in one of DEC’s Clean Water Initiative outreach lectures in May. “They serve as these interfaces between where land and water meet and, as a result, they provide imperative functions to human health, water quality protection and wildlife habitat. They are essential on the landscape for us in terms of environmental and human health and, in turn, we should be studying the health of these ecosystems in order to provide better insight into how to manage, protect and restore these important areas, as well as to provide a more complete picture of overall watershed health.” Concern for the quality of the state’s waters has been borne out in recent years with legislation and changes in regulation shaping efforts to cut down on farming runoff and acknowledging the need for buffers around these ecosystems that keep our water resources healthy. It isn’t just about preserving wildlife habitat, crucial to the survival of many amphibious species, plants and fish, but also about the functions the wetlands and their upland buffers provide — protecting water quality, controlling flooding and keeping our wells and aquifers continually supplied. Building up a baseline of data for the state and recording the status of many of its wetlands is one piece of preserving and restoring those important functions.   Finding wetlands Hohn and Keszey perform three tiers of assessment, starting in the office using LiDAR technology to map out possible wetland locations. “They literally shoot a laser at the ground to tell how far down it is,” Hohn said. “It’s really high resolution, so you can see the basins where there might be vernal pools .... Many of the areas it reveals— there’s no other way to find them.” After more than a decade, the LiDAR survey of Vermont was completed last winter, according to Hohn. The mapping method uses pulsed laser light and sensors that measure the return times and wavelengths of the reflected light to create a digital 3-D representation of whatever it’s looking at. Think echolocation, sonar or radar, but with infrared light at millions of pulses per second. It’s high enough resolution to be one of the key hardware components in the success of autonomous vehicles. The next tier of assessments, once potential sites have been identified, is rapid field assessments using the VRAM, the Vermont Rapid Assessment Method, that Hohn said is based on a protocol out of Ohio. It’s been modified for Vermont and as he went through it recently at a seep and vernal pool site in Berlin, it’s clear he’s added language so that someone without a scientific background, but brief training, will be able to perform one.   Detailed dive The third level of assessment is a more intensive gathering of biological, chemical and physical information and is only done for about 20 to 30 sites a year, whereas up to 10 rapid assessments could be done in a day. Hohn says one aspect of such an assessment would be to stake off an area and do a thorough inventory of plant species and how much ground they cover. Walking through the Berlin site, for example, he and Keszey identified many species of plants, including several trees that were likely green ash, a species of tree that thrives in a wet environment as opposed to just on the edges. “Ash are a really big part of a lot of wetlands,” said Keszey, emphasizing the importance of the bio-assessment team’s work. “Now that they’ve discovered the Emerald ash borer in Vermont, these green ashes might fall victim to it, so it’s a good time to be surveying all these wetlands, because as of last summer they didn’t even know (the Asian invasive beetle) was here, but it hasn’t made it all the way to northern Vermont, yet.” The Emerald ash borer has killed tens of millions of ash trees as it has worked it way through a number of U.S. states and most recently made an appearance in Northern Maine. “It’s close though,” warns Hohn. “The borer kills around 99 percent of the white ash trees, but the white ash will probably eke it out. The really sad thing is something like this, an isolated grove of green ash will probably just be gone. Unless one of these happens to be resistant, but that’s pretty rare. Chances are it’ll just come through and that will no longer be part of the wetland anymore.”
Hohn also spots an elm, an anchor species in floodplain forests that has been devastated since the 1960s by Dutch elm disease spread by bark beetles. The tree may not be quite big enough to be of interest to the Nature Conservancy’s Elm Restoration project. “But, I’ll document it,” he said and took a picture with his hand on the trunk to show its size. “Sometimes I feel like that’s all I can do, document stuff and hope that someday, someone will be able to fix it.”

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