Geographic series sifts through the soils of Williston

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

A seminar that some consider essential to Williston’s future culminated on Saturday when educators, town officials and residents went for a walk in Talcott Forest, a University of Vermont property, and Mud Pond, a piece of the town’s conservation land.

Led by University of Vermont graduate student Jesse Fleisher, the walkers were taking part in the Williston Geographic series.

“Williston is an interesting location for lots of different reasons,” said Carrie Deegan, the town’s environmental planner. “Williston was coastal real estate many millions of years ago. Being on the edge of where the Champlain Sea used to be, we have different soils, different vegetation, different topography. The big point and the big picture is that, by studying this, we can consider what areas are good for human usage based on this history.”

Saturday’s forest walk came on the heels of a Nov. 13 seminar called “Soil, Water & Wildlife: The Landscape Ecology and Fauna of Williston.” With snow on the ground and a bite in the air, 10 people gathered for the early morning hike.

“On this cold, but pretty, morning, we are going to be looking at soils and examining how they relate to the vegetation and the landscape around them,” explained Fleisher. “We’ll discuss the hydrology of the wetlands, the patterns of certain wildlife, and talk about how all these things are connected.”

Fleisher passed around a document called “Place-Based Landscape Analysis of Talcott Forest,” which he co-authored in May. His work with Williston is his graduate study project, a program called Place-Based Landscape Analysis & Community Education, or PLACE. The two-semester course is taught by Walter Poleman, a professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

According to the Williston Conservation Commission’s Web site, in the first semester of PLACE, students gathered, created and organized natural and cultural history information into the layers of a geographic information system. Also known as GIS, the systems are used to store and analyze geographic features.

In the second semester, the students conducted presentations and teacher trainings on their findings, hoping to help the town understand the relationship between its people, the local landscape and natural history.

PLACE has now worked with 17 towns throughout Vermont, Deegan said.

A community endeavor

Just like the geological layers beneath the feet of Williston residents, there are many layers to helping a town utilize its geological knowledge. For Williston, it’s been a collaborative effort between the Conservation Commission, historical society, University of Vermont and Shelburne Farms.

The graduate class has worked with the town to do landscape and cultural analysis. Shelburne Farms is taking the information and developing a curriculum that can be brought into the school system.

“This assessment of the Williston community was done in a manner we call ‘bedrock to birds’ – looking at geology, how geology forms soil, how soil forms vegetation, how vegetation supports wildlife, all the way up to human culture,” explained Shelburne Farms Educator and Community Involvement Coordinator Erica Curry. “The PLACE program provides the forum, but the community provides the action.

“We’re trying to make connections with local teachers, because this information is given to a town to take ownership of it. We’re trying to connect these stories to local experts, to help them utilize their place in their teaching. Middle and high school students will be doing publicity for the visioning meeting in the spring. There are all these layers being utilized in bringing people in to work on this as a whole, and utilize this information however they’re excited to do so.”

The Williston Geographic Series is leading up to a community visioning event on April 4 and 5, 2008.

“It will be an opportunity for town residents to all gather in one spot and, in a productive way, explore the town issues like schools, housing, land conservation, and to work out where the town will go in the future,” Deegan explained. “We are planning to develop action committees out of the discussion, with a focus on specific projects that can be most feasibly addressed.”

The event will be facilitated by Delia Clark, co-founder and project director for Antioch New England Institute, a consulting and community outreach department of Antioch University New England. Clark has 24 years of experience in environmental education in New England and abroad, and received the 1994 New England Environmental Education Alliance Award for Outstanding Contributions to Environmental Education.

Deegan considers the series an important and exciting success.

“I’ve done many events in Williston that haven’t been as well-attended,” she laughed. “We have had between 30 and 70 (people) at each of the seminars, and pretty well-attended walks with eight to 15, which is a good, manageable size for a walk. And we’ve had lots of good feedback. It’s always good to look at the past and see where you’ve been. The broader perspective we’ve been given is a pretty comprehensive look at the town as a whole, covering geology, glacial history, human history, soils, hydrology, wildlife, puts everything in context, and will help with town visioning.”