Preserving our highest peak
By EVAN POPP
For the times argus | June 29,2013
STOWE — Nestled against the face of a rock with little protection from the elements, a 100-year-old, 12-inch willow tree is just one of the alpine plants that Vermont’s highest mountain has to offer.
Mount Mansfield joins Camels Hump and Mount Abraham as the only places with alpine tundra in Vermont. With just over 100 acres of alpine plants, Vermont’s highest peak boasts the largest tundra community of the three mountains.
Forty years ago, Vermont’s naturalists were doing all they could to retain as much of this alpine tundra as possible. But their efforts were thwarted by hikers who unknowingly trampled the plants. Naturalists tackled the problem in several different ways. But arguably their most successful method was the creation of the summit steward program.
University of Vermont Director of Natural Areas Rick Paradis said, “The program started about 40 years ago and is the result of some of the observed disturbance that was occurring along the ridgeline with the alpine plants. The state of Vermont started a program where they hired college age students to work as what they called ranger naturalists (later renamed “summit stewards”). A couple of years into the program, the Green Mountain Club got involved. They coordinate the program for everybody now.”
The summit stewards are placed on all three of the mountains in Vermont containing alpine vegetation, with the largest number of stewards stationed on Mount Mansfield. With the goal of protecting the fragile alpine plants, the stewards act as the caretakers of the tundra ecosystem. During the summer, when mountain activity is the busiest, these stewards are paid to live on the mountain and hike to the summit to educate visitors about the alpine tundra and remind them to stay off it.
“It’s our job to tell people to please stay on the rocks,” says JP Krol, a Mount Mansfield summit steward. “Also we’re there to be a resource for people, tell them about the trails and if they plan to do an ambitious hike or the weather gets bad, which trails are the best options for them and how they can have their best experience up here.”
Krol and more than a dozen other summit stewards showed up on Mount Mansfield Wednesday morning for the 2013 “alpine walk,” led by naturalists from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Vermont.
Persevering though driving rain, high winds and the threat of thunderstorms, the stewards in attendance learned to identify Mount Mansfield’s alpine vegetation.
“There are dozens of different alpine species that are protected (on Mansfield),” says Paradis. Some of the better known ones are bilberries, alpine blueberries, mountain sandwort and diapensia. There are also mosses and lichen as well as many other plants that are protected by this program.”
The summit stewards have proven effective in limiting the damage caused to these plants by visitors. Hikers have gotten used to seeing stewards at the tops of Vermont’s highest peaks and fewer people are journeying off the trail onto to the fragile tundra.
“We want people to enjoy the mountain and have a great hike, but also to take good care of the alpine environment,” says Dave Hardy, the Green Mountain Club’s director of trail programs, and the organizer of the 2013 alpine walk. “Mansfield’s the tallest mountain in the state, has great views and is a beautiful place to go hiking. We’re just trying to increase people’s awareness so that everything that you see when you visit the mountain is still here after you leave.”
Despite the success of the summit steward program, the battle to preserve Mansfield’s alpine ecosystem is far from over. Eight of the mountain’s alpine tundra species are classified by the state as “threatened or endangered,” and eight more have completely disappeared from the mountain over the past 100 years.
The Green Mountain Club estimates more than 40,000 people climb Mount Mansfield every year, providing ample opportunity for the tundra to be disturbed.
Spurred on by these challenges, naturalists and summit stewards will continue protecting these dwarf-like alpine plants. If a willow growing out of a rock can survive at 4,000 feet for a 100 years, perhaps the alpine ecosystem will endure as well. Only time will tell, the stewards say.