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Natural Heritage Elements - Community level


Natural Communities 

Definition

A natural community is an interacting assemblage of plants and animals, their physical environment, and the natural processes that affect them. As these assemblages of plants and animals repeat across the landscape wherever similar environmental conditions exist, it is possible to describe these repeating assemblages as natural community types. 

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Importance

Identifying natural communities is a powerful tool for developing effective land management plans, determining conservation priorities, and increasing our understanding of the natural world. 

                The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (VFWD) currently recognizes 80 upland and wetland natural community types in Vermont (Thompson and Sorenson, 2000). Some examples of upland natural communities are Northern Hardwood Forest , Montane Spruce-Fir Forest , and Temperate Calcareous Cliff, while examples of wetland natural communities are Red Maple-Black Ash Swamp , Cattail Marsh, and Black Spruce Woodland Bog. Each community type is assigned a state rank that describes the rarity of that community type in Vermont . State ranks range from S1 (extremely rare) to S5 (common and widespread) and are based on the number of known examples, the total area occupied, and the degree of threat. 

                Each example of a natural community that is evaluated by the Department's Fish & Wildlife's (DFW) Wildlife Diversity Program is also assigned a quality rank. This measure is intended to compare occurrences of a particular community type with others statewide or with types in a particular biophysical region in the state. The quality ranks range from excellent (A) to poor (D) and are based on specifications developed for each of the 80 natural community types. These rankings are based on an assessment of the natural community's size and current condition and the landscape context. In general, the higher the rank, the more likely it is that the community will be viable over long time periods. The overall significance of a natural community occurrence is tied both to its state rank - how rare it is in Vermont - and to its quality rank, a measure of the size and condition of that particular occurrence. 

                In Vermont , inventories for significant natural communities have taken place at the county and watershed level. Only a few towns have also completed such inventories. Statewide inventories have also been conducted for specific natural community types, such as Northern White Cedar Swamps.

Identification of significant natural communities can help to focus town efforts on those areas that need conservation and management attention. The VFWD and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation have a program to map natural communities on all state lands as part of the land management planning process. In using this method, all natural community types and occurrences are mapped and categorized, regardless of rarity and significance. The natural community base mapping method is being used to develop long-range management plans of state lands. Completing a base map of all natural communities in a managed area can further focus stewardship and protection needs. It also can assist with identification of important wildlife habitat and corridors.  

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Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals like these for the conservation of natural communities: 

1.        Ensure the conservation and/or proper stewardship of significant natural communities found within the town or area of interest. 

2.        Restore degraded but potentially significant natural communities to a viable condition in places where the land is suitable. 

3.        Ensure that within your biophysical region large-scale natural communities like Northern Hardwood Forests are conserved or are under long-term stewardship in parcels large enough (e.g., thousands of acres) to function ecologically with as great a breadth as possible. This may require multi-town efforts. 

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Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources

See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

         The Wildlife Diversity Program: This program maintains the state's information on significant natural communities. Occurrences of significant natural communities are written up as site reports that include management recommendations. The NHIP oversees statewide inventories of specific natural community types, such as Riverine Floodplain Forests, and also conducts major geographic inventories, such as county or watershed inventories. Important natural community locations are also available on the VWFD's 'Significant Habitat Maps,' which are provided for every town in the state.

         The Vermont Center for Geographic Information: The Center distributes statewide geographic point data on natural community occurrences in digital format that were developed by the VFWD Wildlife Diversity Program.

         Wetland, Woodland , Wildland, A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont : This thorough and clearly written guide can help you identify and understand the natural communities in Vermont . This book provides clear descriptions of the 80 different natural community types recognized in Vermont , along with information on their rarity and conservation status, and explains the relationship of natural   communities to biophysical regions in the state. (See Thompson and Sorenson, 2000.in Bibliography)

         Local residents: People who live in an area can often provide valuable information about unusual natural communities.   

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Interpreting the Information  

                The map below shows the significant natural communities that the VFWD identified in Jericho . A word of caution: Most towns, including Jericho, have NOT been thoroughly inventoried natural communities - there are almost surely more to be found. 

                Significant natural communities vary in their size and sensitivity. Rich Fens, which tend to be very small (often less than two acres), can easily be disturbed by human activities. Even foot traffic can affect ecosystem functions in these areas. Larger natural communities, such as Mesic Red Oak- Northern Hardwood Forests or Rich Northern Hardwood Forests , are able to withstand various types of uses, such as sustainable forestry and recreational trails. In both development and conservation planning, evaluate not only the type and rarity the natural community but also its inherent size and quality. This evaluation will help determine how sensitive the natural community type is to disturbance or development. 

Significant Natural Communities

The points shown here represent significant natural communities identified by the VFWD

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Conservation Strategies

                 Once information has been gathered on natural communities, it is possible to develop specific Conservation Strategies to help achieve the conservation goals. Examples of strategies for each goal follow. 

  1. Goal: Ensure the conservation and/or proper stewardship of significant natural communities found within the town or area of interest.

Strategies: 

        a. Conduct additional field inventories to locate unmapped significant natural communities to obtain a complete inventory and understanding in the town or area of interest. Some areas in Vermont have not been thoroughly inventoried for significant natural communities, so additional information is useful. Identified examples may include those with statewide significance as well as those considered locally significant. 

        b. Target significant natural communities in open space planning and land and easement acquisition programs. 

        c. Conserve significant natural communities by including them in an overlay district. (See Tools) Sample Language: The purpose of the natural community overlay district is to maintain the quality rank of significant, rare, and unique natural communities identified in the town natural community inventory. Development shall be limited and, where necessary, appropriate buffers shall be established. Buffer widths will be based on the size, condition, and significance of the natural community, upon consultation with and review by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.  

        d. Hold a community/public forum to educate the public about significant natural communities that occur both in the town and the biophysical region. Discuss which natural communities are rare and the threats to their integrity. 

        e. Provide information about significant natural communities to individual landowners and land managers who own lands that support these resources. Work with them to develop conservation and/or restoration plans as appropriate.   

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2. Goal: Restore degraded but potentially significant natural communities to a viable condition in places where the land is suitable. 

Strategies: 

        a. Use historical information to learn about significant natural communities in the town or study area that have been lost or severely degraded. Develop restoration plans for those communities in cooperation with qualified experts. Contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department or other qualified experts for assistance. Develop a landowner stewardship program to encourage restoration of significant natural communities. Inform landowners about federal cost-sharing habitat restoration programs, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (See Resources) 

        b. Initiate an impact-fee program that requires developers to pay towards protection or restoration of town-owned open space lands, forests, parks, or recreation areas. These impact fees can be used to upgrade and manage these lands, including restoration of significant natural communities or other natural heritage elements. (See Tools for more information on impact fees.) 

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3. Goal: Ensure that within your biophysical region large-scale natural communities like Northern Hardwood Forests are conserved or are under long-term stewardship in parcels large enough (e.g., thousands of acres) to function ecologically with as great a breadth as possible. This may require multi-town efforts.

Strategy: Work with neighboring towns, state and regional conservation organizations, and land management agencies to identify and provide stewardship of, and in some cases conserve, large-scale natural communities such as Northern Hardwood Forests.   

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