WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Park Service has officially recognized "the oldest known occurrence of a biologically diverse fossil reef in the world," and it's in our own backyard.
The Chazy Fossil Reef, located in Lake Champlain between Grand Isle County in Vermont and Clinton County, was recently named to the National Natural Landmarks Program, a list of places of natural historical significance.
According to information provided by the NPS, Chazy Fossil Reef - named for the town of Chazy where it was first studied - contains surface exposures of an Ordovician fossil reef. The reef recounts the tropical, marine environment that existed approximately 450 million years ago on the continental shelf of North America.
The NPS refers to the reef as a "paleontological treasure" that is the earliest appearance of fossil coral in a reef environment, and the first documented example of "the ecological principle of faunal succession."
"The designation means this is the best example of these particular features in that region," said NPS representative Margaret Brooks. "It also allows the National Park Service to go to bat as an advocate for conservation of the site."
Dr. Charlotte J. Mehrtens, a professor and chairperson of the geology department at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt., was one of those who led the charge by the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust nearly six years ago to have the reef recognized by the NPS. Mehrtens served as a scientific consultant to the preservation trust, providing information about the reef's scientific and educational significance.
"It's been a slow-moving, but continually-moving process," said Mehrtens, who added a bulk of that time was going through the federal approval process.
In the end, the NPS recognized the significance of the reef as a structure built by a "complex community of marine organisms that enveloped the environment around them," she said.
"This is the first time in earth's history that the diversity of life in the oceans was such that they could build such a structure," she said. "It was designated for preservation because it's such an excellent example and we'd like to keep it preserved for children to study in school projects, and for university students and scientific researchers, to have this available as a resource for years to come."
Though it has taken several years to receive national landmark status, it's been worth the wait, said Mehrtens.
"I think it probably ranks up there in the list of most significant things I'll do in my professional career," she said. "As a group, I think we're all really happy to be able to preserve such an educational resource for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It's very gratifying."
The Chazy Fossil Reef is best accessible through the land trust's Goodsell Ridge Preserve in Isle La Motte. The preserve has walking paths, a visitors center and a museum that details the history of the reef and surrounding environment. The reef may also be seen on the New York side from Valcour Island, said Mehrtens.
More information about the reef and its best vantage points is available on the land trust's Web site, www.ilmpt.org.