Naturalists have long held Mt. Equinox in high esteem for its beauty
and natural diversity, a valued source of study by botanists and
ecologists since the late 1800s.
It is the home to rare plants & varied wildlife, diversified woodlands,
marble ledges, springs, wetlands and a pond. From the upper slopes,
there are exceptional views.
The Preserve, extending over a large elevation range, encompasses
varied forest types:
• Young hardwood and pines at the lowest elevations once
cleared for agriculture.
• Spruce & fir, stunted by harsh climate, at the highest points of land.
• Mid-elevation forests of yellow birch and red spruce, with a lush
understory of ferns and mosses (between 2600 and 3000 ft. elevation).
• Rich northern hardwood forests (below 2600 ft elevation)
The northern hardwood forests are perhaps the most significant forest
community on Mt. Equinox. This rich mix of forest may well be the largest
and best example of its type in New England, attributable to both its
typography and geology and the large tract undisturbed by roadways
or human development.
Ferns and wildflowers also flourish here. There is an abundance of early spring wildflowers known as spring ephemerals, and naturalists have cataloged a number of rare and unusual species throughout the Preserve.
Early settlers cleared much of Equinox Mountain and grazing extended high up on the mountain. Old stone walls deep within the forest are remnants of that agricultural era. The forest is now recovering from that disturbance, and natural processes are again determining the forest’s growth.
The dedication of these lands to permanent protection will insure that this very important forest environment will long provide a natural example of a mature northern hardwood forest for many generations to come, made accessible through a maintained trail network and by careful management of these lands.
Equinox Pond Shoreline
Expanded Look at the Ecology of Mount Equinox
A Special Place: The Ecological Features of Mount Equinox
Mount Equinox forms the spectacular backdrop to the Equinox Resort and the Village of Manchester. Rising from Equinox Pond at elevation 1,100 feet to the crest of the Taconic Range at 3,816 feet, the Mount Equinox lands are an outstanding example of a Rich Northern Hardwood Forest ecosystem. Its slopes gush forth thousands of gallons of water each minute which feed rivers and supply drinking water below. It is a place where visitors can find solitude and moments of quiet contemplation in the shade of a near old-growth forest that once covered virtually all of Vermont.
THE RICH SECRET IS IN THE MARBLE
It is the bedrock and topography of Mount Equinox that make it so special. The Taconic Mountains have a curious origin – marble and limestone that originated in a warm shallow sea is covered by shale and slate that originated very far away as deep sea mud. The mudstone was pushed up on top of the marble and limestone by the great force of moving continents, and it remains today as a hard cap on top of the Taconics, protecting the soft marble from erosion. Because of this protective cap, we see marble and limestone at unusually high elevations on Mount Equinox and surrounding mountains. It is that high-elevation marble that makes this place unique.
Marble weathers easily. Water moving through it can quickly create crevices and cracks that over time become caves and caverns. Underground streams are abundant, popping out at the surface as springs and seeps.
Marble also contains an abundance of plant nutrients. So the slopes of Mount Equinox are extraordinarily rich. The constantly weathering bedrock creates a steady source of nutrients, and gravity moves those nutrients down slope, creating a rich compost-like soil that is ideal for plants. Here we find a Rich Fen, Rich Northern Hardwood Forest, Calcareous Outcrops, and many rare and unusual plants.
One encounters significant natural communities and rare plants almost immediately upon entering the Equinox Preserve. Along the quiet north shore of the spring-fed Equinox Pond is found a Rich Fen community, where springs keep the ground constantly wet and springy, and where trees take hold with difficulty. In this fen one can find dwarfed tamaracks and the very rare plant, brook pimpernel. Rich fens are rare in Vermont and are very sensitive to human disturbance.
Hiking upslope from the pond one quickly enters a verdant forest. The Rich Northern Hardwood Forest of Mount Equinox is a place where beautiful sugar maples reach tall and straight toward the sky, where the soils are rich, moist, and loamy, and where spring wildflowers carpet the ground in lush abundance.
This forest is diverse, hosting many different trees, shrubs, and herbs, and it is highly productive – trees grow as rapidly here as they do just about anywhere in the Northeast. Along with the sugar maples are white ash, basswood, yellow birch, sweet birch, bitternut hickory, and butternut. In the spring, the forest floor is covered with wild leeks, Dutchman’s breeches, blue cohosh, and other spring wildflowers. Later in the summer one finds lush green patches of wood nettle, maidenhair fern, and white snakeroot.
SIGNIFICANT RICH HARDWOOD FOREST
The “Equinox Highlands”, comprised of Mount Equinox (3,816’ elevation) and Mother Myrick Mountain (3,361’ elevation) are part of the northernmost end of the Taconic Mountain range. The Rich Northern Hardwood Forest on Mount Equinox and Mother Myrick Mountain is one of the largest and best examples of this natural community in the Northeast. Most examples of this community are small – five to 10 acres, sometimes a bit more.
| Fall foliage Pond Loop
The area on Mount Equinox is believed to cover at least 2,000 acres (both within and outside of the EPT holdings), and in many places it is very mature. The best expression of this forest community is found between 1,300 feet and 2,500 feet elevations. Several rare plants are associated with the Rich Northern Hardwood Community.
One of the primary purposes of the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) conservation easement is to maintain the Rich Northern Hardwood Forest in its natural state and to allow it to attain an old growth condition over time. When that state is reached, we (or our descendants) may expect to see a forest that has a mix of large, stately trees, young growth where trees have naturally died and fallen, abundant downed wood where a variety of animals and plants can thrive, and standing dead snags where birds and mammals make their homes. The soil will be loose and fertile, and there will be a great diversity of native plants, fungi, birds, mammals, insects, and soil.
UNIQUE OUTCROPS HOLD SPECIAL HABITATS
Within this forest are outcrops and openings that provide special habitat. Three of these, Deer Knoll, Table Rock, and Cook’s Hollow, are of particular note. The Temperate Calcareous Outcrop Communities and Boreal Calcareous Cliff Communities found at these sites support a number of rare or uncommon plants. These sites are extremely sensitive to human use, and will be maintained in as natural a state as possible. General foot traffic in these areas is strongly discouraged except for occasional, expert guided hikes.
| Deer Knoll
Above 2,500 feet, the forest changes to one where red spruce and yellow birch are the dominant trees, the soils are less rich, and club mosses and ferns are common on the forest floor. Some parts of this forest are very mature, approaching old growth conditions already. One of these very mature areas can be seen along the Blue Summit Trail.
At the highest elevations one finds stunted spruce and fir mixed with yellow and white birch and mountain ash. This forest provides habitat for the rare Bicknell’s thrush.
What is particularly noteworthy about the Mount Equinox lands is that it includes a variety of connected habitats that range from low elevation hardwoods to sub-alpine fir. The continuum of habitats across this elevation gradient is unusual and enormously valuable in providing opportunities for organisms to move and evolve over time. This feature is much more important ecologically than having the same types of habitats existing in discontinuous patches which cannot accommodate much variation.
Specific, up-to-date information on the significant natural communities and rare species can be obtained by contacting the Vermont Non-game and Natural Heritage Program, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. For further information, click here.
WHO LIVES IN THESE RICH NORTHERN HARDWOODS
A variety of mammals populate the slopes of Mt. Equinox, protected by the thick natural cover and food sources that the forest provides. Black bear and bobcats range through these protected hillsides, and white tail deer find good forage here. The Preserve supports many recognizable fauna, including wild turkey, raccoons, foxes, beaver, coyotes, porcupines and fishers, not to mention squirrels.
The mountainside is home to two species of globally rare bats – the Indiana bat and the eastern small-footed bat-which find protective havens among the limestone caves and deciduous trees. Reptiles and amphibians scoot about in their favored habitats, to the delight of many a youthful nature lover.
Owls call to their mates through the treetops. The elusive Pileated woodpecker surprises the still woods with its laughter-like cries as it soars over a woods-lined path. Numerous “neotropical” migratory birds make the Preserve a prime bird watching locale during the semi-annual migrations. The rare songbird, the Bicknell’s Thrush, makes stopovers in the Preserve hillsides. And Vermont’s state bird, the Hermit Thrush, fills the woodlands with its flute-like trills.
Threats to the Ecological Integrity of Mount Equinox
Because of the unusual and sensitive nature of the Mount Equinox lands, there are many potential threats to its ecological features. Any human activity on these lands, including trail construction and use, must be handled with great care.
There are five primary threats at present (though others may appear with time):
Invasive Exotic Plants and Animals
Invasive exotic (non-native) plants are one of the most significant threats to the Mount Equinox system. At present, the most obvious invasives are Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles, garlic mustard and purple loosestrife, but glossy buckthorn, European buckthorn, and Japanese barberry are present as well. Other species to watch for include burning bush, Asiatic bittersweet, giant reed, multiflora rose, autumn olive, and Japanese knotweed.
The threats from these species are numerous. The most obvious threat is competition for space, sunlight, nutrients, and dispersal agents. Some species, such as the honeysuckles and the buckthorns, can form dense thickets where little else can grow. Others, like Japanese barberry and burning bush, grow in a more dispersed pattern but still replace natives.
Garlic mustard actually changes the soil chemistry, interfering with the ability of native species to take up nutrients. Purple loosestrife can grow along the pond shore, crowding out the native shore plants. Currently it is found in the marshy area below the dike, on the northwest shore and along the northeastern portion of the Pond Loop.
Trails are to be monitored for exotic species. If any exotic species are discovered, a separate control and eradication plan shall be considered and implemented.
Soil Erosion and Compaction
Soil texture and fertility are key components of the natural communities on Mount Equinox. Soil compaction through hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian use can change the soil so dramatically that native species are unable to survive. Mountain bikes and horses are therefore limited to certain trails where such compaction has already taken place. Deleterious soil erosion due to foot traffic has been observed on the outcrop areas, where soil is thin and fragile to begin with. Mitigation programs will be implemented as needed.
Water is a key component of the Mount Equinox system, and changes in the flow or quality of the water moving down the mountain could have deleterious effects, especially on the Rich fen and Equinox Pond. The Rich Northern Hardwood forest could also be threatened by improperly maintained trails if they change the flow of water down the mountain. Flow change could deprive some areas of the nutrients that arrive through downslope movement of water and organic material.
Trampling and Taking
The Calcareous Outcrop communities are particularly vulnerable to direct trampling of rare plants by hikers. These areas are therefore managed to reduce use to a sustainable level. Rare plants have occasionally been over collected by zealous botanists and gardeners seeking unusual specimens.
The browsing of native vegetation by deer is a major concern in the forests of this region. Foresters are especially concerned with browsing as a threat to maple regeneration, but in the case of the Equinox lands, the concern is broader – many native species are at risk. Therefore hunting is allowed on the holdings above 1,300 feet. The threat of herbivory is linked to the threat of invasive plant species. Deer avoid eating many invasive plants and will preferentially browse native plants if both natives and invasives are present. High levels of deer herbivory can create a feedback loop where invasive species spread more rapidly and dominate areas more completely than they would under low levels of herbivory.