The Mountain Manifesto (Page 3) 2017-03-13T08:59:10+00:00
Photos of Mount Mansfield.
Top: Bruce S. Post. Bottom: provided.

The Venerable – and Vulnerable – Green Mountains

“When you looked at the mountains, we didn’t know anything about mountains, mountain forests, mountain vegetation.”

— Hub Vogelmann

Few people knew Vermont’s mountains better than did Hub Vogelmann. When he took a job in the University of Vermont’s botany department in 1955, Hub discovered Vermonters knew a lot about agriculture and soils but next to nothing about their mountains. He learned fast. His great legacy is his work on Camels Hump and acid rain and the creation of Act 250’s special protection for mountain environments above 2,500 feet.

Hub knew, deep down in his soul, something all Vermonters need to know: Vermont is named for and synonymous with its Green Mountains, bound to an identity at once literal, emblematic and virtually timeless.

They are the most venerable members of our landscape, most having formed here from 500 to 350 million years ago, long before life appeared on land. A few are a billion years old, some of the most ancient on the planet, formed when Earth’s most primitive creatures were just evolving in the oceans. Even the youngest date back nearly two hundred million years, as part of the giant supercontinent Pangea, when it came together, then broke apart as North America drifted away from Europe and Africa, with the new Atlantic Ocean filling the widening gap.

Their rocks belie what they were prior to being crumpled into mountains by these great tectonic upheavals: marine sediments (now limestones and schists), great sandy shores (sandstones and quartzites), deep-earth volcanoes (granites), and many others. As mountains, some, in their fullness, were higher than the Rockies, or maybe even the Himalayas. But they have aged, worn down grain by grain over eons of exposure and weathering, reshaped by glaciers advancing and retreating as the climate cooled or warmed. Over this immensity of time they have held dominion over this place we call Vermont.

Photos of Mount Mansfield.
Top: Bruce S. Post. Bottom: provided.

The Venerable – and Vulnerable – Green Mountains

“When you looked at the mountains, we didn’t know anything about mountains, mountain forests, mountain vegetation.”

— Hub Vogelmann

Few people knew Vermont’s mountains better than did Hub Vogelmann. When he took a job in the University of Vermont’s botany department in 1955, Hub discovered Vermonters knew a lot about agriculture and soils but next to nothing about their mountains. He learned fast. His great legacy is his work on Camels Hump and acid rain and the creation of Act 250’s special protection for mountain environments above 2,500 feet.

Hub knew, deep down in his soul, something all Vermonters need to know: Vermont is named for and synonymous with its Green Mountains, bound to an identity at once literal, emblematic and virtually timeless.

They are the most venerable members of our landscape, most having formed here from 500 to 350 million years ago, long before life appeared on land. A few are a billion years old, some of the most ancient on the planet, formed when Earth’s most primitive creatures were just evolving in the oceans. Even the youngest date back nearly two hundred million years, as part of the giant supercontinent Pangea, when it came together, then broke apart as North America drifted away from Europe and Africa, with the new Atlantic Ocean filling the widening gap.

Their rocks belie what they were prior to being crumpled into mountains by these great tectonic upheavals: marine sediments (now limestones and schists), great sandy shores (sandstones and quartzites), deep-earth volcanoes (granites), and many others. As mountains, some, in their fullness, were higher than the Rockies, or maybe even the Himalayas. But they have aged, worn down grain by grain over eons of exposure and weathering, reshaped by glaciers advancing and retreating as the climate cooled or warmed. Over this immensity of time they have held dominion over this place we call Vermont.

Photos of Mount Mansfield.
Top: Bruce S. Post. Bottom: provided.

The Venerable – and Vulnerable – Green Mountains

“When you looked at the mountains, we didn’t know anything about mountains, mountain forests, mountain vegetation.”

— Hub Vogelmann

Few people knew Vermont’s mountains better than did Hub Vogelmann. When he took a job in the University of Vermont’s botany department in 1955, Hub discovered Vermonters knew a lot about agriculture and soils but next to nothing about their mountains. He learned fast. His great legacy is his work on Camels Hump and acid rain and the creation of Act 250’s special protection for mountain environments above 2,500 feet.

Hub knew, deep down in his soul, something all Vermonters need to know: Vermont is named for and synonymous with its Green Mountains, bound to an identity at once literal, emblematic and virtually timeless.

They are the most venerable members of our landscape, most having formed here from 500 to 350 million years ago, long before life appeared on land. A few are a billion years old, some of the most ancient on the planet, formed when Earth’s most primitive creatures were just evolving in the oceans. Even the youngest date back nearly two hundred million years, as part of the giant supercontinent Pangea, when it came together, then broke apart as North America drifted away from Europe and Africa, with the new Atlantic Ocean filling the widening gap.

Their rocks belie what they were prior to being crumpled into mountains by these great tectonic upheavals: marine sediments (now limestones and schists), great sandy shores (sandstones and quartzites), deep-earth volcanoes (granites), and many others. As mountains, some, in their fullness, were higher than the Rockies, or maybe even the Himalayas. But they have aged, worn down grain by grain over eons of exposure and weathering, reshaped by glaciers advancing and retreating as the climate cooled or warmed. Over this immensity of time they have held dominion over this place we call Vermont.

Bearing witness to the way the continents collided, Vermont’s four main mountain ranges run north south, each of different origin, age, and composition, each part of a longer mountain system in eastern North America. Hand-in-hand with climate and latitude, our mountains largely dictate what lives here. Their forested flanks are distinctly zoned by elevation, with northern hardwood forests holding sway up to about 2,400 feet, yielding to a realm of mixed softwoods and birches between 2,400 to 3,000, then to all softwoods of spruce and fir above 3,000, the trees becoming more stunted and gnarled as they approach tree line at about 3,800 feet.

Finally, on a few peaks and ridges above tree line, an arctic-like cover of dwarf trees and shrubs huddles against whatever Nature metes out. Within these zones, of course, are innumerable water bodies and waterways, wetlands, natural areas, and all the plants and animals associated with them, some very special.

The higher our mountains rise, the harder it is on what lives there. The soils, built back with excruciating slowness since the last glacier stripped them away millennia ago, become thinner and cling more precariously to the slopes. They become more acidic, too, making it tougher for plants to obtain nutrients.

The climate and weather become more severe, with colder temperatures, higher winds, more ice, snow and rain, and an increasingly curtailed growing season. The plants are fewer and sometimes of rare kinds, the animals hardy and adapted, or temporary seasonal transients.

Though not visually dramatic with stereotypical big trees, the tracts of higher terrain are some of the largest, untouched “virgin” lands in the state, thousands of contiguous acres that had been inaccessible and/or unproductive commercially for so long in our history. In these wild expanses, far-ranging wildlife such as black bear and bobcat live and travel in their seasonal movements; hawks, bats, and songbirds in great numbers pass through and over in migration; unusual species, unique to these places, hang on for dear life.

Ironically, the ages-old toughness of our mountains translates not into durability, but just the opposite: fragility. The environment at higher elevations is far more vulnerable to outside disturbances, both natural and human-induced, than at lower altitudes: any damage takes a greater toll on resident life, takes longer to self-repair (if it ever does), and the effects compound downhill (or, if towers and wind turbines are involved, higher, for creatures that fly).

The climate and weather become more severe, with colder temperatures, higher winds, more ice, snow and rain, and an increasingly curtailed growing season. The plants are fewer and sometimes of rare kinds, the animals hardy and adapted, or temporary seasonal transients.

Though not visually dramatic with stereotypical big trees, the tracts of higher terrain are some of the largest, untouched “virgin” lands in the state, thousands of contiguous acres that had been inaccessible and/or unproductive commercially for so long in our history. In these wild expanses, far-ranging wildlife such as black bear and bobcat live and travel in their seasonal movements; hawks, bats, and songbirds in great numbers pass through and over in migration; unusual species, unique to these places, hang on for dear life.

Ironically, the ages-old toughness of our mountains translates not into durability, but just the opposite: fragility. The environment at higher elevations is far more vulnerable to outside disturbances, both natural and human-induced, than at lower altitudes: any damage takes a greater toll on resident life, takes longer to self-repair (if it ever does), and the effects compound downhill (or, if towers and wind turbines are involved, higher, for creatures that fly).

Road cuts on Lowell Mountain, Vermont

The climate and weather become more severe, with colder temperatures, higher winds, more ice, snow and rain, and an increasingly curtailed growing season. The plants are fewer and sometimes of rare kinds, the animals hardy and adapted, or temporary seasonal transients.

Though not visually dramatic with stereotypical big trees, the tracts of higher terrain are some of the largest, untouched “virgin” lands in the state, thousands of contiguous acres that had been inaccessible and/or unproductive commercially for so long in our history. In these wild expanses, far-ranging wildlife such as black bear and bobcat live and travel in their seasonal movements; hawks, bats, and songbirds in great numbers pass through and over in migration; unusual species, unique to these places, hang on for dear life.

Ironically, the ages-old toughness of our mountains translates not into durability, but just the opposite: fragility. The environment at higher elevations is far more vulnerable to outside disturbances, both natural and human-induced, than at lower altitudes: any damage takes a greater toll on resident life, takes longer to self-repair (if it ever does), and the effects compound downhill (or, if towers and wind turbines are involved, higher, for creatures that fly).

Industrial wind turbine base on way to Lowell. Photo: Bruce S. Post.
Industrial wind turbine base on way to Lowell.
Photo: Bruce S. Post.

In order to get these structures up there, you have to build a series of roads that actually access these ridgelines. You actually have to excavate, fill, blast and basically inscribe a road system that is able to get the equipment up on the mountain.

— Geoffrey Goll, civil engineer

Water at higher elevations is abundant from rain and snow, even combed from clouds by the needles of conifers. If an area is undisturbed, the water is held within the pores of highly organic soils and released slowly downhill. But if the vegetation is killed or severely injured, this touchy balance is upset. Without protection of shielding vegetation, the soils are suddenly exposed to direct force of the elements. Water, unchecked, overpowers an area, and as it descends, joins forces with yet-more water, and collectively pours downhill in abnormally-high volumes and speed, carrying with it ever-more soil and clouding the once-clear streams and rivers below. What has taken millennia to build can be wiped away in a matter of days or weeks.

When we look at mountains, we may see simple pyramids, peaks at the top, widening to bases below. But from an ecological view, we should see them as complex inverted pyramids: their broad structure depends upon the apex of their summits. It is a fine balance. Upset it, and it teeters, then all can come crashing down.