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Fossil Fueled

Getting pumped on evolution at Isle La Motte's Goodsell Ridge Preserve


Published September 19, 2006 at 6:16 p.m.

The sound of a jackhammer startled Linda Fitch on her Isle La Motte farm one summer evening in 1995. It wasn't just the racket that unsettled her - it was the realization that someone was breaking up rocks at an adjoining, long-abandoned quarry that happens to be one of the most important coral fossil sites in the world.

Fitch quickly phoned Chuck Ratté, then a UVM geologist who had brought some of his students to the limestone quarry just a month earlier. Ratté advised her to call the local Act 250 commissioner. To protect an invaluable remnant of Vermont's far-distant past, state officials immediately ordered a halt to the drilling at what's known as Fisk Quarry. At the time, the Ontario-based Champlain Marble Company owned the land.

That was just the beginning of a decade-long conservation campaign that culminated last week with the opening of the Goodsell Ridge Preserve, an outdoor-indoor museum that could become an important Vermont ecotourism destination. This 81-acre former dairy farm lies about a mile from the 24-acre Fisk Quarry, which was itself secured as a permanent preserve in 1999.

It wasn't easy to protect either of these unique sites, both of which are part of the thousand-mile-long, but largely unexposed, Chazy Reef. Formed half a billion years ago near today's Zimbabwe, the underwater formation inched northwestward over the eons as tectonic plates shifted.

Fitch recalls that many locals resented her efforts to shut down a quarry on a small island famous for - and profiting from - the limestone extracted from this singularly accessible section of Chazy Reef. Once polished, the stone resembles a lustrous black marble. It was used in the construction of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and New York's Radio City Music Hall; its role as a backdrop for the Rockettes earned the stone the nickname "Radio Black."

A significant share of Isle La Motte's 500 residents "didn't like the idea of someone who lives half the year in New Jersey trying to stop quarrying," says Fitch, who has summered on Isle La Motte since 1963.

Conservationists argued that protecting the fossils at this particular quarry, which had operated 80 years earlier, would not harm the island's economy and would actually help local businesses through an expansion of the tourist trade. "The concern about the economic impact was entirely understandable," says Peter Espenshade, director of the Lake Champlain Land Trust. "But we and our local partners made the case that quarrying could continue elsewhere while these preservation sites attracted visitors."

Isle La Motte already draws thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims each year to its St. Anne's Shrine. Islanders were well aware of the benefits to be gained from a second magnet for mainlanders.

There was no opposition to converting the nearby former dairy farm into an educational center that interprets fossils so old they predate life on dry land. Tom and Shirley LaBombard, who owned these pastures and cedar stands for 40 years, had served as conscientious stewards of the skeletal remains of cephalopods, stromotoporoids and other exotic and extinct underwater creatures whose secreted shells served as the reef's building blocks. "Our cows never did any damage, and they actually did a service by keeping the land mostly open," says Shirley LaBombard.

The couple was eager for their land to be conserved, but "only in accordance with our stipulations," Shirley says. The current arrangement guarantees everlasting protection for the fossils - a promise the LaBombards had sought. But it took six years to raise the $350,000 to purchase the land and to obtain the necessary easements, Espenshade notes.

"This was a tough project for us," he says. "It's a remote site with a small population. Conserving something in places like Shelburne or Charlotte is a lot easier" because of their higher political profile and greater affluence, Espenshade explains.

But Goodsell Ridge Preserve also proved to be "a hugely rewarding project," he adds. "I've been working on land conservation for more than 10 years, and I've never seen a project that's drawn such national attention and offered such an extraordinary educational opportunity."

It takes some resolve to find the famous fossils on the east side of Isle La Motte. But once you locate the place, a few hundred yards down Quarry Road, a well-marked path leads through the field to outcroppings swirled with signs of life. "Discovery Areas" are numbered and identified, but until interpretative signage is installed, it's hard to know what to make of the formations. The one-room museum sheds light - when it's open.

In a throwaway society, why does Espenshade work so hard to preserve the past?

"I see it as a very hopeful activity," he replies. "When we conserve a property, it's conserved 'in perpetuity' - forever. We think in terms of 100, 500 years from now. I tell my daughters that they'll be able to bring their grandchildren here."

In addition, the Goodsell Ridge Preserve has a contemporary cachet, opening at a time when the tenets of evolution are under attack from biblical fundamentalists. Espenshade suggests the Isle La Motte sites can be seen, indirectly, as a rebuttal to a Creation Museum set to open next year in Kentucky. Sponsors of that project say their "walk-through-history museum will be a wonderful alternative to the evolutionary natural history museums that are turning countless minds against the gospel of Christ and the authority of the Scripture."

To Espenshade, "There's as much spirituality and mystery here as anywhere." The fossil record's vast chronological sweep can be difficult to comprehend, he says, but "seeing these early remains of life certainly fills you with a sense of wonder and reverence."

The fossils found all over Isle La Motte present rational minds with tangible evidence that the Earth was not plopped into place 4000 years ago, as creationists believe. Visitors curious about the planet's authentic natural history can follow a 2-million-year timeline by traversing the 7-mile length of the island.

Many of the fossils are microscopic; others are easy to spot. One of the most incongruous examples is the coiled shell of an ancient snail embedded in the side wall of the 1843 building that now houses the Isle La Motte Historical Society.

The oldest, simplest life forms along this line of biological succession built the slice of reef at the island's southern tip when it lay beneath the shallow tropical waters of what paleontologists refer to as the Iapetus Ocean. The jagged gray walls of the Fisk Quarry contain middle-period fossils, some of them quite large. The limestone slabs protruding from fields at Goodsell Ridge, meanwhile, reveal more recent traces of the life aquatic.

The complexity and diversity of the colonies at Goodsell Ridge have attracted geologists and amateur fossil hunters for decades. Most visitors just inspected and respected what they found; a few vandalized the site. Espenshade points to one neatly geometrical gouge where someone used a handsaw to remove a fossil set in stone hundreds of millions of years before the age of the dinosaurs.

All-terrain vehicles pose the latest threat to these evidentiary exhibits of evolution. At twilight, some local teens now roar along trails cleared in the past couple of years to give walkers access to all parts of the preserve. Fitch, the president of the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust, takes a stoic stance toward the ATV riders. "We need to make friends with these kids and maybe enlist them as conservation rangers," she suggests.

Espenshade's Lake Champlain Land Trust, headquartered in Burlington, is keen to highlight its partnership with the Isle La Motte group. "We don't want it to be seen as a case of conservationists coming up here from Burlington and telling people what to do with their resources," he says. "It's vital to work with a local organization like the Isle La Motte Trust."

For their part, the reef's local protectors are confident that conservation can co-exist with development. Fitch notes, for example, that a quarry is currently operating just down the road from the Goodsell Ridge Preserve. "Most people appreciate what they've got here," she says. "They want to conserve it as part of the island's legacy."