An ambitious survey has yielded a portrait of ecologically significant habitats throughout Woodstock — upland forests, meadows, rocky crests, and wetlands — and guidelines for the formulation of land use policies that would strike a balance between conservation and development.
The survey, known as the Habitat Mapping Project (HMP), was conducted between May 2011 and September 2012 by a team of scientists from Hudsonia Ltd., an environmental research institute based in Dutchess County. Ingrid Haeckel, who is biodiversity mapping coordinator at Hudsonia, presented the project’s findings at the October 9 meeting of the Woodstock Town Board.
“Woodstock now has a map for habitats in every parcel of the town,” said Haeckel. The products of the 16-month project — five large-format, high-resolution GIS (geographic information system) habitat maps, along with a comprehensive report that includes habitat descriptions and conservation recommendations — may serve as a valuable resource for purposes such as townwide planning and the review of site-specific development proposals, Haeckel observed.
Among the study’s noteworthy findings was the discovery of several heath swamps, which are rare in New York State, in the eastern part of Woodstock, including the Zena area, and the identification of up to 30 percent more wetlands than are charted on federal and state maps. The Hudsonia team recommended that the town establish so-called conservation zones, or buffer areas, around rare or otherwise important habitats.
The town paid nothing for the study, whose cost was funded by $140,000 in grants from three agencies — the Catskill Watershed Corporation, Ashokan Stream Management Program, and state Department of Environmental Conservation — and approximately $10,000 in private donations, according to Mark Peritz, a former chairman of the Planning Board, who was a prime mover in bringing the HMP to Woodstock.
At the outset of the study the researchers compiled data from various maps (topographic, soils, geologic), aerial photos, and other sources. Then, incorporating that information, they created preliminary maps using ArcGIS software. Obtaining permission from private landowners, the Hudsonia team conducted field assessments of the preliminary maps, adjusting or correcting them as needed.
The field checks covered 20,000 acres, or 55 percent of the undeveloped land in Woodstock. The final, wall-size maps consist of four sectional views of the town and one view of the town’s entire area. The HMP report and the accompanying maps can be found on the town’s website, woodstockny.org. In addition to Haeckel, the Hudsonia team included Gretchen Stevens, who is director of the institute’s Biodiversity Resources Center, and Othoniel Vazquez Dominguez, a biologist.
In Woodstock, as in the surrounding region, upland hardwood forests are the most prevalent habitat, hosting a variety of wildlife including songbirds. Oak, maple, ash, and beech trees populate much of the forested areas. The researchers recommended that the town make the protection of unbroken swaths of forest a conservation priority. Threats to such areas include insect pests, such as the emerald ash borer, and residential developments with driveways.
Meadows, which provide a habitat for the Grasshopper and Savannah species of sparrow and other birds, are relatively scarce in Woodstock, which contains only five meadows larger than 25 acres each. Hudsonia recommended that meadows be mowed regularly, after August 1 if possible, to prevent overgrowth.
The “rocky crest, ledge, and talus” habitat is home to rock outcroppings and plants such as ferns. Oak-heath barrens, which are a feature of rocky outcroppings, are a habitat for the timber rattlesnake, a threatened species, and the copperhead. Although most oak-heath barrens in Woodstock are located on protected public lands, the Hudsonia team recommended the delineation of a conservation zone around such habitats, in order to safeguard the breeding area covered by timber rattlesnakes.
Wetlands include large, connected wetland areas called complexes, which are a habitat for the spotted turtle among other species; vernal pools, including one found on the Comeau property, and intermittent woodland pools, which maintain amphibian diversity for species such as the spotted salamander and the wood frog; heath swamps, like those found in the Zena area, and, less commonly, buttonbush pools; perennial streams, such as the Sawkill and Beaverkill, which fish and other species inhabit, and intermittent streams; and circumneutral bog lakes, of which Yankeetown Pond is one of the few in New York State. The Northern Cricket Frog frequently inhabits such lakes but was not observed at Yankeetown Pond.
Conservation and planning
For the purpose of guiding land use policies toward the goal of preserving important habitats, Hudsonia recommended the following conservation zones, as measured from the edge of a habitat: for circumneutral bog lakes, 3,300 feet; for isolated pools, including heath swamps and buttonbush pools, and for vernal pools, 750 feet; for wetland complexes, 400 feet; for perennial streams, 650 feet; and for intermittent streams, 150 feet.
Haeckel told listeners that the towns of Amenia and Rhinebeck, along with two land trusts, have incorporated habitat maps generated by Hudsonia into their planning procedures. Because habitats are generally stable entities, the mapping data should remain “quite accurate” for decades, she noted. In an October 24 interview, Stevens reported that Hudsonia representatives plan to participate in a workshop meeting with the Woodstock Planning Board on November 29.
Paul Shultis Jr., a current member and former chairman of the Planning Board, welcomed the availability of the HMP data. “We have discussed this a lot at the Planning Board,” said Shultis in an interview after the Town Board meeting. “We will apply the Hudsonia mapping to applications that come before us, as a way to try to protect the environment before major engineering and design work goes into a project. For example, in the past all of the engineering work would have been done before the discovery of a wetland on the site.”
Shultis continued: “In Woodstock we need to promote more cluster development — projects with one driveway instead of three, for instance. These maps will also provide a view of the areas surrounding a proposed site for development, such as streams or wetlands, and of the direction of water runoff from those areas. To be able to look outside the parcel in question is one of the biggest applications of this kind of mapping. Within reason I think that (the Planning Board) would apply the maps’ conservation zones or buffer areas.”
The Woodstock habitat maps and accompanying report are available for purchase, at cost, from Hudsonia. The price for the maps and the report in CD format is $25; prints of all five wall-size maps can be purchased for $107. For information, contact Haeckel at 845-758-7023.