Repeated vandalism plagues shores of Lake Willoughby

Last week, state staff members discovered significant damage to infrastructure at the South End of Lake Willoughby, including 150 feet of fencing that was burned in an illegal open fire pit and thrown in the water. Photo courtesy of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation

Visiting Lake Willoughby in the summer is a classic Northeast Kingdom experience for many. Steep cliffs rise above the clear, deep water, providing a stunning backdrop for swimming, fishing, boating, hiking or just lazing on the beach.

For the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, however, managing the more than 7,000-acre Willoughby State Forest, which encompasses the South End of the lake, is an ongoing struggle. It has invested years of effort in a soon-to-be-constructed parking lot and improved trails and facilities at the often overcrowded area.  

Last week, department staff discovered “significant damage” to the infrastructure located at the West Cove beach, locally famous for clothing-optional swimming. 

According to the incident report, vandals cut ropes and removed half of the cedar posts and signs being used to delineate a wetland protection and shoreline restoration area. The posts were partially burned in an illegal open fire pit and discovered floating in the lake along with several Twisted Tea cans.

The damage was roughly $500 in materials and $3,000 in labor costs. The vandalism also had a significant impact on the morale of people trying to improve the site, according to O’Brien, including local teens from NorthWoods Stewardship Center who spent last week planting native trees and conducting trail maintenance in and around the South End.

“It certainly was a blow to the effort, and really has me questioning how to continue,” said Luke O’Brien, forest recreation specialist with the department’s St. Johnsbury district.

A witness, who himself was camping illegally nearby, reported seeing three or four males in their 20s shooting off fireworks at 3 a.m.

Last week’s incident was only the latest act of vandalism at the site.

Another occurred last summer in the midst of a five-week, $30,000 project to restore and maintain trails along the South Shore trail. The work included planting hundreds of native trees and constructing a fence. 

Many of the freshly planted trees didn’t even make it through their first weekend, as vandals dug them up and used them in their campfire.

There have also been smaller incidents, according to O’Brien. He described the situation in Willoughby State Forest as “death by a thousand cuts” — frequent litter, human waste in the woods, “toilet paper flowers,” soil compaction and trail widening.

Just this past Monday, O’Brien said that staff found 10 illegal fire pits in the area, along with a dead fish and a bag of miscellaneous trash, bottles and cans.

O’Brien hopes that both increased messaging about the area’s rules and the addition of composting toilets later this year will help with some of those problems. He said that some people don’t realize camping is illegal along the lakeshore. Regarding the acts of vandalism, he says he’s not yet sure how they will be addressed.

“I don’t mean to generalize, but almost all of the vandalism is associated with broken bottles and beer cans … for whatever reason, it has become a site that people associate with campfires and partying,” he said. “It’s very, very discouraging.”

“It seems like enforcement is probably the most probable way to address this, but since the site is managed as a state forest, we don’t really have a lot of resources to do that,” he explained.

Boaters and swimmers take advantage of pleasant summer weather at Lake Willoughby in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Photo by Jim Welch/VTDigger

The department received funding last summer and this summer to hire a “roving ranger” for two to four days a week, but O’Brien noted that the employee goes home in the evenings.

“Right now, I would say that we’re in a holding pattern,” he said, emphasizing the effect that “bad behavior” has on other people’s experiences at the South End — not to mention the taxpayer dollars that fund its cleanup.

The history of vandalism also has O’Brien concerned about some of the bigger improvements the state is making in the area— if, for example, someone were to burn down a $20,000 composting toilet.

“It’s certainly something I don’t want to think about, but it’s something we need to think about,” he said, adding that the department is discussing how to better staff the South End and prevent vandalism in the future.

Despite the ongoing challenges, O’Brien notes that Willoughby is a precious place for most people.

“When I go there and I’m not dealing with these issues of fire and trash, particularly when I go there in the morning and people are walking their dogs or paddleboarding in the morning mist, I’m reminded that it’s just such an incredibly beautiful location and resource,” he said.

“I can’t let the acts of a handful of people drive the management of that site,” O’Brien added. “We have to keep moving forward on behalf of everybody else who, by and large, is there to enjoy it respectfully and responsibly.”

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Katherine Fiegenbaum

About Katherine

Katherine Fiegenbaum covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. She previously covered the NEK and New Hampshire’s North Country as a staff writer for the Caledonian-Record. She also has worked at Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, New Hampshire, and as the Capitol Hill Reporting Intern for the Durango Herald. She also worked for many years in agriculture, including time spent in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. She has a B.A. in International Studies and Arabic from American University.

Email: kfiegenbaum@vtdigger.org

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