North Branch Nature Center
Conserving wetlands for community care
On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled in favor of the Sacketts in Sackett v. EPA, a case that challenged the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act on an Idaho couple’s private land. The outcome has far-reaching, detrimental impacts on the protection of wetlands, resulting in as much as half of the 118 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. no longer being protected by the Clean Water Act.
Wetlands are important for a host of reasons, such as improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, producing food and medicines for people, and especially, providing flood protection. The effects of this court ruling may be felt particularly hard in places like Vermont, where only 5% of the land is wetland, annual average precipitation has increased nearly 6 inches since the 1960s to over 40 inches, and most extreme weather events involve intense rain or snow and flooding.
During Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, a study found that the wetlands surrounding Otter Creek in central Vermont diminished the damages to the town of Middlebury by 84-95%, saving potentially $1.8 million. Vermont has some of the more robust wetland protections in the country, but following the Supreme Court ruling, the obligation of wetland conservation now lies with smaller-scale conservation. The necessity of wetland protection is evident for the health and benefit of ecosystems and people. What exactly can this conservation look like?
Holding back the water
Nature centers like the North Branch Nature Center (NBNC) in Montpelier, Vermont increasingly stand at the fore-front of conservation efforts that not only protect the surrounding infrastructure of wetlands, but also provide visitors with an important connection to nature and a place to process the effects of recent floods. Catherine Griset, the Community Engagement Coordinator, described NBNC as “Montpelier’s backyard, a place for people all over Central Vermont to connect with nature, either through our programming, or just through the lands and the space that we have here.”
This past summer and fall have been especially rainy in Vermont. In central Vermont, where Montpelier is, rainfall broke records and areas suffered the worst flood damage in almost 100 years. A key part of flood protection is wetlands as they are essential in holding and slowing down water. NBNC’s 28 acres of land are alongside or within the floodplain of the North Branch of the Winooski river, with a majority being open meadow and then a corridor of forest along the river. Griset described the floodplain land as “a natural space that, through history and historical trend of water and flooding, is a place where the river is used to overflowing its banks in some ways.”
Willows and other plants that have adapted to live alongside rivers and have deep roots to pull up a lot of water are stewarded to thrive at NBNC. The rest of the nature center is open field with trail networks and plants like cattails and alders that are used to inundation and holding the water.
In early July, Montpelier received over 5 inches of rain in one day. For a town that surrounds the North Branch and Winooski rivers at that confluence, the result was flooded basements and up to four feet of water on first floors in downtown Montpelier. NBNC is a couple miles upriver from the town of Montpelier and the impacts of the land being stewarded as wetlands and as part of the floodplain, were evident during this great flood. The presence of the wetlands not only protected infrastructure downriver, but also served as a community place for people to process their experiences and have space.
Providing space, growing community
NBNC offers children’s day camps during the summers and this year, within a day or two after the flooding, children and staff members were still able to safely be out on the land and connecting with the environment.
This gave caretakers and parents peace of mind about childcare, despite the impacts of the flooding on their homes, businesses, and community members. NBNC staff reported kids processing the flooding through play, as well as talking and asking about what had happened. According to Griset, kids did “pretend play of building towns and rivers and flooding the river and watching the impact on the town or figuring out small-scale ways that they could route the river around town.” Young children were able to have more agency through playing and find a way to process what was happening to their community.
NBNC did close down their trails to the public for a couple of weeks as they were full of standing water and they wanted to be cautious in terms of safety and trail degradation. But once trails were open again to not just campers, they hoped people would be “reapproaching the land, reapproaching the river.”
Griset shared that she personally felt “really negative feelings toward the river… like scared and mad and angry at it,” even though she knew that “all of those emotions didn’t actually need to be put on the river.” But through walking the trails and spending time at NBNC, she was able to reapproach the river and land, and start processing those feelings because of the space available. She hoped other “folks were able to come here and help heal some of that [and] start practicing thinking about the river in different ways, at least even just like noticing how it had changed.”
While the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of exploitation and degradation of wetlands, the importance of wetlands to communities in Vermont is unwavering. Wetlands are able to buffer against catastrophic flooding while also serving as places of community gathering. In line with North Branch Nature Center’s mission, protection looks like connecting people with the natural world and building community for the benefit of the ecosystem of which people are a part of.