Champlain Valley

Clayplain Forest

Natural History and Stewardship

Photos above and inside back cover:
From the top of Snake Mountain, clayplain forest fragments intermingle with agricultural fields, fencerows and houses in Addison, Vermont.

Cover photo:
Clayplain forest near Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in winter.

What is clayplain forest?
Fertile clay soils dominate the gently
undulating fields of the southern Champlain Valley. Before European settlers began producing wheat, hay, corn, sheep and milk here, forest clothed the land. Oak, hickory, maple, elm, ash, beech, hemlock, and white pine grew in a diverse forest ecosystem.

The small parcels of hardwood, pine or mixed forest amidst today’s agricultural fields are the fragmented remains of the natural forest cover. Because of the warm valley climate, very high fertility of the clay soil, and moderate to poor soil drainage, clayplain forests are strikingly different from the forests in the Green, Taconic and Adirondack mountains. Agriculture is very different in the clayplain ecosystem also. It has been much more successful, and although most of the hill farms were abandoned a century ago, farming continues to be the dominant land use in the Champlain Valley.

Today, remaining fragments of clayplain forest provide a vital link to history. Many of the largest trees are well over 200 years old. Such giant oaks stood when Abenaki hunted and gathered in the Champlain Valley. The trees and the forest persisted through ice storms and hurricanes, and nourished black bear and now extinct passenger pigeons. Certainly, some of the trees in the remaining forest fragments started as sprouts from the stumps of the old-growth forests the settlers encountered. We’ll never know exactly what those former forests looked like, but from studying the remaining woods and early survey records we can surmise. The dense tree canopy was composed of the same species we see today, but in different proportions within a varied tapestry of wetter and drier forest. Here and there, tall above the canopy of oaks, maples, ashes, hickory and beech, one would likely have seen towering white pine and elegant elms.

Before the forest, however, the history of the land goes back millions of years. The limestone, dolomite and shale that the glaciers pulverized into clay formed in an ancient sea between 430 and 520 million years ago. Twenty thousand years ago glacial ice covered the region, and as it melted and retreated, a series of huge, lakes filled the Champlain Valley. First, Lake Vermont, with its flotilla of icebergs, flooded most of the valley for one or two thousand years, and then, with an influx of marine waters, the smaller Champlain Sea covered lower parts of the valley for approximately 2,000 years. The clay that southern Champlain Valley residents know so well settled out in the deep, still waters of Lake Vermont and the Champlain Sea.

About 11,000 years ago, the connection with the ocean was cut off and the present day Lake Champlain took shape. The lake bottom, for thousands of years beneath water, became an exposed lake plain and passed through a succession of vegetation types before the present clayplain forest natural community developed. The word "clayplain" is shortened from clay-soil lake plain—the landform on which the forest grows.

Although it has at times been called oak-hickory forest, many species of trees grow in the clayplain forest—more species than in any other forest type in northern New England. The hickory is shagbark, for bitternut hickory is almost always on the rocky hills and extremely rarely grows on the deep clay. The oaks of the clayplain are white, bur, swamp white and red; both swamp white and bur oak display northeastern range extensions into the clayplain. Sugar, red and silver maples, and all three of our ashes (white, black and green) grow in the forest, as well as American elm, basswood, beech, hemlock and white pine.

Clayplain forest is also home to a great diversity of shrubs and herbs, a number of which are rare or uncommon and some that occur in Vermont only in the clayplain forest. The great diversity is due to high fertility, a moderate climate and a patchy mosaic of wet depressions—small and large—scattered within the forest. These characteristics also account for the presence of a number of species with more southern affinities.

Clayplain forest is great wildlife habitat too. The plentiful food, including large nut crops, the proximity to water and wetlands, the moderate climate, and the landscape diversity featuring rocky hills such as Snake and Buck mountains, provide abundance for mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects. Bobcat, white-tailed deer, beaver, gray squirrel, and red and gray foxes are some of the larger mammals. Among the many bird species are wild turkey, cardinal, tufted titmouse, hermit thrush and blue jay. Salamanders include Jefferson, blue-spotted, spotted and redback. Gray treefrog, wood frog, spring peeper, northern leopard frog, green frog and bullfrog are some of the frog species. Worthy of particular mention is the red-headed woodpecker, a bird rare in Vermont where it is present only in the Champlain Valley lake plain ecosystem.

While many animals do spend all or part of their annual cycles on the clayplain, because of the small size of the remaining forest fragments many species that likely once thrived are rare visitors or breed unsuccessfully. For example, black bear surely could have put on much winter fat with a feast of clayplain acorns and beechnuts. Also, a number of migratory songbirds do not nest near forest edge and certainly now avoid breeding in the forest fragments.



Where is the clayplain forest?

Why is clayplain forest important?
A rich diversity of species and
ecosystems forms the interconnected web of life. In the southern Champlain Valley, clayplain forest is a major part of the native ecosystem—it is the principal fabric of the web. From the forest floor to the crowns of emergent white pines and American elms, hundreds of species of plants, animals—including humans—and microorganisms are part of the clayplain forest ecosystem.

Prior to European settlement, the eastern deciduous forest spread from the Atlantic coast to the Midwestern prairies. The landscape—from mountain summits to valley bottomlands; steep, rocky terrain to undulating, stone-free lands; sterile, dry soils to fertile, moist soils—was a pattern of many forest types. Human survival and food production are easier in the gentle, fertile valley lands, so the natural systems in those areas have been most disrupted. The Champlain Valley clayplain forest is one such fragmented ecosystem, and the remaining fragments may be under further threat. Only a few large patches of the forest remain; most fragments are well under 100 acres; many are only 20 or 30 acres. Once the dominant land cover in the southern Champlain Valley, clayplain forest, which formerly extended over 220,000+ acres, is now very rare.


The integrity of an ecosystem depends on its natural functioning, natural nutrient and water cycles, and native species diversity. The integrity of remaining forest patches is under pressure, especially from construction of homes within the fragments, removal of naturally vegetated corridors, and even from excessive deer browsing. As the Champlain Valley human population continues to increase, the disruption will continue unless we make conscious choices now about the stewardship of our home ecosystem. As landowners and stewards, our choices can help conserve the diversity of life and ecological functions of clayplain forest—an ecosystem that sustains us by providing clean water, clean air, pest predation, and outstanding natural beauty.


What can we do?

Many stewardship opportunities exist for landowners and residents of clayplain forest.
Whether you own 10 or 1,000 acres, your activities on the land can help maintain what is left of the forest and even promote growth of new forest. The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project is dedicated to working with all interested people to promote stewardship of the threatened clayplain forest ecosystem.

The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project is involved in research, conservation and restoration of clayplain forest. Because we believe that the best future for clayplain forest will result from collaboration, we work with landowners, local governments, state agencies, natural resource conservation districts, county and consulting foresters, and land trusts to identify and champion the best stewardship, management and conservation strategies.


Opportunities of all sorts are available. Look for the bur oak leaves below to read about ways you can be involved in stewardship of "our" clayplain forest ecosystem.


Stewardship and Conservation

Listening to the thoughts and addressing the concerns of landowners and
community members are crucial to the future of the clayplain forest.
Because the sum of all of our individual actions is critical to the health of
the ecosystem, sharing ideas with one another and taking whatever small steps we can builds a strong, local conservation effort.

Wildflowers with cookie-cutter shaped leaves like this wood anemone blanket the clayplain forest floor in spring.


Ways you can help with stewardship and conservation:
Let us know your vision for the future of the southern Champlain Valley and its forest ecosystem. Whether your interests are hunting, wildlife habitat, timber harvesting, water quality, using the forest as a windbreak for crop land and livestock pasture, or simply taking an occasional walk in the nearby woods, we can work with you to help achieve your objectives and protect the health of the forest for future generations.
Share you thoughts and experiences of living with and working in the clayplain forest with your community.
Learn about the clayplain ecosystem. Contact us for more information or attend one of our natural history walks.
Protect your woods from conversion to non-forest land use. Only a tiny fraction of the original clayplain forest cover in the southern Champlain Valley is still forested. If you own a piece of this unique ecosystem, share your pride of it. Encourage neighbors and friends to retain their forest parcels.
If you are building a home, select a house site outside of existing woods.
Leave as many trees, shrubs and wildflowers on your lot as possible, and plant additional native species to landscape your home among the nearby forests, fencerows and fields.
Learn about rare, threatened and endangered species of the clayplain forest and help to conserve those that may be on your lands.
When landscaping, avoid planting non-native species, and help control the spread of invasive species such as honeysuckle, common buckthorn and purple loosestrife, which can displace native species.
Consider the ecological, financial and tax benefits of donating or selling the development rights on a parcel of clayplain forest. (See the "Conservation Easements" section.)
Encourage your planning commission to support conservation of clayplain forest fragments and to include ecosystem considerations in zoning ordinances and town plans.
Support the acquisition of public lands that are managed for ecological function and wildlife habitat.


Because of the fragmented condition of the forest, restoration efforts are focused on encouraging buffers to existing forest cores, enhancing connections between forest tracts, and revegetating riparian zones. Restoration encompasses many activities including planting native trees and shrubs, stopping mowing and patiently allowing natural succession to occur, fencing, and controlling invasive exotics.


Ecosystem restoration provides conditions for:

larger populations of area-sensitive wildlife species such as bobcat, bear and interior-forest birds,

forest resilience to invasion by exotic species and edge-dependent nest parasites and egg-predators, and
 cleaner water and healthier stream and lake ecosystems.


The silky buds of the shagbark hickory unfold in the clayplain forest in early May to reveal large, compound leaves.


Ways to assist with clayplain forest restoration:
Are you tired of mowing your lawn? Consider letting part of it grow back into old-field and, eventually, forest. You will enjoy a unique opportunity to watch the process of succession as wildflowers, shrubs, and trees slowly emerge from your former lawn. In addition, butterflies, birds, deer, and other wildlife will visit your yard for food and shelter. Many species of birds and insects that eat insect pests will also be attracted to your yard and may help reduce pest problems in your garden.


Allow trees and shrubs to grow in field borders and wet swales. This will allow some species of wildlife to move between nearby patches of forest and will invite birds and insects that can help reduce agricultural and garden pests. It will also help protect soil by reducing wind erosion when plowing must occur during dry periods.


More ways to help with clayplain forest restoration:
Help to control the impact of grazing and browsing on forest regeneration. While many of the fragments are still recovering from livestock grazing, deer browsing is becoming a major impact to tree and herb regeneration. Deer fencing in some areas may be necessary to restore natural vegetation processes in clayplain forest parcels.


If you are harvesting trees from a clayplain woodlot, plan your rotations and silvicultural techniques to ensure a healthy forest for the future. Use the services of your county forester or a private consulting forester.


Leave buffers of trees and natural vegetation along streams and wetlands to reduce nutrient- and pesticide-loaded runoff, benefit wildlife populations, and reduce soil erosion. Buffers of even 50-100 feet can be very effective.


Eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, use organic supplements, such as careful applications of manure or compost to fields, or grass clippings left on lawns. Chemicals can wash off fields and lawns to neighboring forests and streams, and can threaten the health of the forest and the fish and other organisms in nearby streams and Lake Champlain. They can also enter your drinking water and impact human health.


Plant trees around your house for shade, for protection from the wind, to help cool and clean the air, and to encourage wildlife. Connect nearby fragments of forest by planting trees or allowing natural old-field succession.


When planting trees and shrubs on your property, plant native species that have grown from local seeds. Clayplain forests are very diverse and offer many native species of trees and shrubs that will succeed on the clay soils. Contact us for sources of seeds and plants of native species. If you have a landscaping or nursery business, consider growing and selling native clayplain species.


Invasive exotic species like common buckthorn and the Eurasian honeysuckles can slow the process of native tree and herb regeneration in an old-field or hedgerow. Mechanical control of young buckthorn and honeysuckle involves uprooting or clipping stems. Learn to identify these widespread pests and try to remove them before they root deeply and grow vigorously. Larger plants in fields or hedgerows can be cut back year after year to give native species an advantage.


Join us for restoration work projects throughout the year. Help with seed collection, tree and seed planting and exotics control in the spring and fall.


10 Marc Lapin, left, discusses clayplain forest ecology on a springtime walk in Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. The walk was sponsored by Otter Creek Audubon Society and the Middlebury Area Land Trust.


The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project was started in 1996 to gather and analyze data about plants, soils and wildlife in clayplain forest parcels on private and state lands. These data help us to understand the components and dynamics of a little-known ecological system. We also have prepared maps to look at patterns on the landscape, in order to assess research and conservation opportunities and alternatives that may arise.


Tii McLane (left) and Marc Lapin gather data in a permanent sample plot.


Ways to become involved in clayplain forest research:

Learn about clayplain forest ecology during one of our natural history walks.


Offer researchers access to clayplain forest lands that you own or manage to help us learn more about the characteristics of clayplain forest.


Help us gather data in some of the permanent sample plots in clayplain forest near your home.


Tell us about your observations of the less common wildlife.


Sources of technical assistance and funding ...

The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project can connect you with a
variety of organizations that will help you with conservation and
restoration. Funding is available for many conservation projects on
private lands.


Explore funding opportunities to help with clayplain forest conservation and restoration projects.
The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program can help with funding for fencing and water supplies for your livestock to protect nearby areas of clayplain forest. The program can also provide technical and financial assistance for restoring clayplain forest on lands that were formerly cleared.  

Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program
of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Contact: Eric Derleth or Chris Smith

11 Lincoln Street
Essex Junction, VT 05452
(802) 872-0629


The Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has several landowner assistance programs, including Conservation Technical Assistance and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which may be available to help with clayplain forest conservation projects.  

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Middlebury Service Center (802) 388-6748
1590 Route 7, Suite 1, Middlebury, VT 05753-8997

Williston Service Center (802) 879-4785
600 Blair Park Rd, Ste 280, Williston, VT 05495

Rutland Service Center (802) 775-8034
170 South Main Street, Rutland, VT 05701


Seek grant money to help with tree planting and forest maintenance projects:

Urban and Community Forestry

Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation
Steve Sinclair 241-3673


Swamp white oak leaves in clayplain forest in Charlotte.

Conservation Easements

Land trusts and other land conservation organizations can assist you with the process of selling or donating development rights on your land. While protecting the ecological values of your land, conservation easements also often provide tax breaks and income.

Consider selling or donating the development rights on your clayplain forest. With a conservation easement in place on your land, you will continue to own and use the land, but future development will be restricted. Some of the organizations listed below may also be interested in purchasing clayplain forest land.


The Nature Conservancy

Vermont Field Office
27 State Street
Montpelier, VT 05602-2934
(802) 229-4425

Middlebury Area Land Trust

P.O. Box 804
Middlebury, VT 05753
(802) 388-1007


Vermont Forest Legacy Program

(Funding currently available for fee purchase or easement purchase in several Addison County towns)

Land Acquisition Program
Agency of Natural Resources
103 South Main St.
Waterbury, VT 05761
(802) 241-3697 or (802) 241-3682


Vermont Land Trust

8 Bailey Ave.
Montpelier, VT 05602
(802) 434-3079


Snakeroot sprouts among the many herbaceous plants of the clayplain forest floor.


Oaks and shagbark hickories are prevalent in many clayplain forest sites.

Natural Communities and Rare and Threatened Species

The Nongame and Natural Heritage Program of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife studies and provides management information for natural communities, threatened and endangered species, and other nongame wildlife species in Vermont.

  For more information about the clayplain forest natural community and the many other natural communities in Vermont, contact:

Nongame and Natural Heritage Program

Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife
Contact: Eric Sorenson
103 South Main St.
Waterbury, VT 05671-0501
(802) 241-3700



The forest ecosystem does not need to have timber harvested to be healthy and productive. If you do choose to harvest timber or firewood from a clayplain forest parcel, plan operations to maintain long-term sustainability of not only trees or game animals but all ecosystem components, including soil, herbaceous plants and water quality. Even if a woodlot is only a few acres, forest management information and planning provided by a county forester or a knowledgeable consulting forester are likely to improve both ecological sustainability of the parcel and long-term economic returns.

Winter view of a swamp white oak in the clayplain forest near Dead Creek.
This tree is more than 200 years old.


If you decide to harvest trees from a clayplain parcel, utilize silvicultural methods that ensure a healthy, diverse, uneven-age forest for the future. In most cases for clayplain forest, to promote diverse, more natural stand structure and age-classes, single-tree selection would be the recommended silvicultural technique.


It is best to harvest only during frozen, winter conditions. Even then, or especially if you harvest in dry, summer conditions, plan logging operations carefully in and around wet areas. The wet soils are easily disturbed, and there may be sensitive wildlife species, like salamanders and frogs, present. Never take machinery into the woods when soils are wet.


Use the services of your county forester or a knowledgeable consulting forester.


Think about how you would like your woods to be in the future. The most important part of managing land is to have a clear set of goals and objectives for the land. Management plans and activities, whether they are involved or brief, can then be designed to meet your vision.


Leave dead wood, large and small, standing and down, in the forest. Large woody debris is important for sustaining natural nutrient cycles and the full diversity of life in a forest.


For more information about ways you can manage your clayplain woodlot for a wide variety of functions and values, contact:
David Brynn
Addison County Forester
1590 Rt 7 South,
Middlebury, VT 05753
(802) 388-4969

Michael Snyder
Chittenden County Forester

111 West Street
Essex Junction, VT 05452
 (802) 879-5694

Nate Fice
Rutland County Forester

317 Sanitorium Rd, W. Wing
Pittsford, VT 05763
(802) 483-2730

Vermont Family Forests (VFF) is a nonprofit forest conservation organization. VFF promotes the cultivation of local family forests for economic and social benefits while protecting the ecological integrity of the forest community. VFF offers hands-on workshops on all elements of ecologically sustainable forest management. VFF provides family forest owners with affordable access to independent "green" certification by the Forest Stewardship Council. VFF currently has 34 parcels and over 5,000 acres in its certified forest land-base. VFF also assists family forest owners in local value-adding and marketing for their forest products under the "Family Forest" registered trademark.

In addition to ecological and social benefits, clayplain forests can also produce high-quality forest products. Using ecologically sustainable forest management, these forests can grow more than 100 board feet per acre per year in species such as white and red oak, shagbark hickory, basswood, and sugar maple.

VFF has developed a "Voluntary Timber Management Checklist" for landowners interested in ecologically sustainable forestry. The checklist includes 36 ways to protect water quality, site productivity, and native biological diversity in forests managed for timber products.

Many of these practices are ideally suited for use in clayplain forest communities. For example, careful design and winter use of access will help avoid soil erosion, rutting, and compaction. Undisturbed buffers along streams and wetlands will improve soil health and water quality. By discouraging invasive exotics such as common buckthorn and by retaining snags and downed wood, landowners can provide wildlife habitat and help to ensure a healthy and diverse forest and high quality timber for the future.


   To obtain a copy of the VFF Timber Management Checklist or additional information, contact:
Vermont Family Forests
PO Box 254, Bristol, VT 05443 email:
(802) 543-7728 Fax: (802) 453-7729


The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project is generously funded by:

South Lake Champlain Trust, Inc.
Lake Champlain Basin Program
The Sustainable Future Fund
Teresa Heinz Scholars for Environmental Research

Additional assistance and support have been provided by:

Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife—
    Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area &
    Nongame and Natural Heritage Program

Staff of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission

Middlebury Area Land Trust

Otter Creek Audubon Society

Landowners and other community members are joining together to explore, support, and restore clayplain forests in the Champlain Valley.


Your concerns and ideas are crucial to the future of the clayplain forest. Let us hear from you!


Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project

Marc Lapin, Coordinator
239 Cider Mill Rd.
Cornwall, VT 05753
(802) 462-2514

Visit us on the web:

Natural history and conservation presentations are available free of charge!


Publication design and layout by Heather Karlson
Text © 2000-2001 Heather Karlson and Marc Lapin
All photographs © 1999-2000 Heather Karlson. All rights reserved
Printed on recycled, processed-chlorine-free paper with soy-based inks.


Clayplain forest floor in January with leaves of swamp white oak, American elm, white oak, and white pine.



The Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project coordinates research, conservation and restoration, and promotes stewardship of the threatened clayplain forest natural community. Through its work, the Project increases awareness, provides education, and encourages local pride in the unique clayplain ecosystem.


for more information, contact:

Marc Lapin, Coordinator
Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project
239 Cider Mill Rd.
Cornwall, VT 05753
(802) 462-2514

This publication was made possible with grants from the South Lake Champlain Trust, the Lake Champlain Basin Program and The Sustainable Future Fund.

Printed by Queen City Printers Inc.

Page last updated: July 16, 2002

For your free printed copy of this booklet,
contact the Champlain Valley Clayplain Forest Project.

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