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Meet Jennifer Ely: Ambassador of Arms Forest

Relaxing in a lawn chair she brought for the occasion wearing her comfortable hiking shorts and sport sandals, Jennifer Ely looks right at home in Arms Forest. The sun keeps peeking out from behind the clouds and a breeze ruffles the beech leaves around her. The breeze causes the weather to teeter between the green heat of summer and the cooler snap of fall. Jennifer worked in Burlington for 30 years as the director of Winooski Valley Park District, a cooperative partnership of seven member communities who share a common interest in protecting the natural resources in the Winooski River Valley. Now under the leadership of Nick Warner, WVPD currently manages 18 parks and natural areas with over 1,750 acres in conservation. After 30 years at the helm, Jennifer deserves to relax. In retirement, she finds herself hiking in Arms Forest seven days a week.

“The spring wildflowers are amazing and I love coming in the winter to see the animal tracks. I also visit the vernal pool. I pop in to hear the frogs peeping,” she says. “Arms is always in motion. I like to see the changes that are happening. It is the wonderful four-seasons-of-Vermont on display. And I also love my conversations with the other park users. Many of them have shared their names with me and asked for mine.”

Jennifer moved to Vermont as a teenager after a childhood of following her father’s career –he was a diplomat–from Washington DC to Cypress, Beirut, Malawi, Turkey, Pakistan and India. In 1980, she joined WVPD, first as a secretary and then shortly after, when the board promoted her, as the Director.

“In 1980, I answered an ad for a secretary position. I knew I wanted to work in conservation. The office was on the second floor of a building on Church Street. Lois, you remember the “Hot Dog Lady,” was getting a perm just down the hall. I was so glad to get away from the smell of hair products when we moved our offices down to Ethan Allen Homestead a couple of years later.”

Jennifer remembers the excitement of the early days working for WVPD. “I liked that it was seven towns working together so you could conserve land that might span more than one town. The conservation groups were very cooperative back then. People were already thinking across boundaries. No one was competing. We would check in with everybody from conservation commissions to land trusts. We didn’t want to elbow anyone out of the way. We just wanted to focus on getting land and saving it from subdivision. It was a very heady time.”

Her work along the Winooski River gave her a front row seat to the arrival of invasive plants, which are still a challenging issue in floodplain forests. Purple Loosestrife arrived early as an invasive plant in wetlands. It tends to grow in large mats and out compete native plants. Purple Loosestrife has since been brought more under control by the introduction of the Galerucella beetles, who feed on the leaves and have reduced its abundance to manageable levels.

“I remember loosestrife because it was so beautiful. People really noticed it. When the name “magenta menace” started to stick that was a turning point. It got people thinking that it was a menace, that it was not to be revered.”

“People notice showy plants, but unfortunately not all rare plants are showy. We wanted to protect Delta Park, because of the globally rare lake shore plants there. Some of the same species we have along the sandy shores of Burlington. But the real selling point there were the tiger beetles. They are beautiful and fierce, dragging their prey into their hole like lions.”

Known for their aggressive predatory habits and lightning quick speed, tiger beetles capture the passion of many naturalists. Their large bulging eyes, long, slender legs and large curved mandibles make these beetles one of the scariest predators in their tiny world, but also one of the most beautiful, states the Vermont Tiger Beetle Atlas. The tiger beetles found at Delta Park were Cicindela hirticollis and Cicindela repanda or the Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle and the Bronzed Tiger beetle. Both species are found on sandy shorelines. The atlas lists the Hairy-necked Tiger beetle as very rare.

The conversation drifts back to Arms Forest. Jennifer is sitting in the exact spot where the BPRW conservation team saw a gray fox this spring during an outdoor meeting. Being in Arms Forest holds the promise of a surprise visit by wildlife. Barred owls, scarlet tanagers, fishers, foxes and all live here. By any ecological measure, Arms Forest is an exceptional place. The forest has two state significant natural communities: Transition Hardwood Limestone Forest and Mesic Maple Ash Oak Hickory Forest. Because of Arms Forest’s history after European settlement as a wooded pasture and a woodlot, the land was never fully cleared or plowed so the wildflowers have grown undisturbed for centuries. The calcium rich bedrock outcrop are surrounded by deep sandy more acidic soils, so the pH varies widely throughout the forest. This juxtaposition of soil types adds to the biodiversity.

“It is not the closest natural area to my house. But I still come here seven days a week. It is a meditation. It helps reset my mind. I don’t know all of the plant species, but I have gotten to know which ones hang out together,” says Jennifer. “The way that BPRW is redirecting and closing trails is working astonishingly well. Trails have proliferated in the last ten years. Now we have a well-designed trail plan that is bringing things back into balance. Most people are really in favor of what is going on out here.”

“When I talk to the mountain bikers, I say to please stay off the moss. The moss holds the moisture and keeps the soil from eroding. The moss helps get all the other plants through the summer. Moss also keeps the forest cooler. What delights me is that on a hot day the coolness of the forest extend six feet into the parking lot,” she adds.

After years of conservation work, Jennifer is in a good position to reflect on the advantages of being in Vermont. “Vermonters think of themselves as environmentalists. If you give them a

message, they tend to follow through. When I talk to mountain bikers, most of them are my son’s age maybe 20s or 30s, they stop and talk to me. They have been taught to respect their elders. Recently two young men rode by me on the main trail a few days after we talked and shouted, ‘We are off the moss.’ They really did care.”

As the sun moves directly overhead, Jennifer sets out as an informal ambassador to check on the trail closures. Today she is happy to find that most of the trails still have their closed signs up and the closed trails are brushed in. “I tell people that BPRW has botanists and ecologists advising them. They are making this park a refuge not just for people, but for plants and animals, too. If you tell enough people—the walkers, runners, and mountain bikers—they start to show that they understand.”

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