Vernal Pool Certification, Massachusetts

A typical vernal pool, as seen in Amherst, Mass. (Source: US Forest Service)

Note: For context this article was originally written in 2016. Since that time we have one of the best years for precipitation in recent history.

As the summer winds down we leave a season of marked drought, one of the worst in years. This has proven especially difficult for many of the Commonwealth’s farmers, especially those growing water intensive crops such as corn, peas, or asparagus. However, this begs the question how will our wildlife be affected in the short-term? Unless we see significant precipitation this winter, one of the most visibly affected habitats will be our vernal pools.

So what exactly makes a vernal pool? There are many fine differences in the exact definition both for academic and legal purposes, however the American Heritage® Scientific Dictionary defines one as-

A seasonal body of standing water that typically forms in the spring from melting snow and other runoff, [which] dries out completely in the hotter months of summer, and often refills in the autumn. Vernal pools range from broad, heavily vegetated lowland bodies to smaller, isolated upland bodies with little permanent vegetation. They are free of fish and provide important breeding habitat for many terrestrial or semiaquatic species such as frogs, salamanders, and turtles.

Vernal pools serve as incubators for many species that we often think of as lake or pond dwellers, and for this reason they were often overlooked in the past. While wetlands are legally protected habitats, until recently, vernal pools remained especially vulnerable to development due to their ephemeral nature. Without the proper diagnostic checks in the dry summer months, it would be easy to mistaken such a key natural resource with little more than a pile of undecomposed leaves from the previous season. However while many may find standing water a public hazard in its own right, due to mosquitos among other things, without these habitats we would see significantly lower numbers of frogs, toads, and salamanders, all species that eat insect larvae and reduce some of their risk to crops.

Thanks to the efforts of activists and regulatory agencies, many states have taken extra steps to ensure that these bodies of water remain protected. Some, including Massachusetts, have released a series of additional guidelines which municipal employees and volunteers can use to document and mark these, for future protection. Below I have taken the guidelines of Massachusetts, and in future installments will compare them with New Jersey’s and Maine’s programs to note where they may exceed or lack pertinent details to demonstrating each government’s definition of a vernal pool.

Established in 1987, Massachusetts has a robust certification program, with more than 7000 vernal pools documented and approved through a clear set of guidelines which can be found on the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program’s (NHESP) website. There are no professional requirements for submitted a documented vernal pool for review, encouraging all citizen-scientists following these guidelines to document certified vernal pools (CVPs) and submit them to the NHESP.

The requirements are simple- physical and biological features must be documented within 3 years prior to their submission. Biological features can be documented with photos, videos, or audio of clear quality. In addition to this, physical criteria also includes proper mapping of the location using USGS topographic maps, MassGIS orthophotos, and one additional map either sketched, taken with GPS lat/long coordinates, documented by an assessor, or taken by a professional survey.

The biological criteria can be documented with two methods, collecting evidence for one or more obligate species or two or more facultative species-

Criteria for the obligate and facultative species methods of certified vernal pool documentation


Once this process is complete, the documentation is approved by the NHESP and sent to local DEP offices, municipal offices, and affected property owners. While the program has achieved its aims of protecting vernal pools, in future posts I will delve into further detail about how its ease of approval poses challenges for abuse of the statute in different communities of varying wealth and development.

The Holyoke Opera House

One thing I’ve come to enjoy about Holyoke is its rich history in the performing arts. In its prime the City had several theaters, one of which is currently being refurbished for use as a performing arts center.

Most others did not survive the decades of decline in the 20th century, but one such building has left a wealth of information and artifacts in its wake. This building was the Holyoke Opera House.

Rendering of the front of the opera house, as rendered in the American Architect and Building News.

Completed in 1878 through the patronage of William Whiting, one of the City’s paper magnates, the Opera House was built alongside the Windsor Hotel on the corner’s of Dwight and Front St adjacent to the First Level Canal.

The architect was one Mr. C[harles?] S. Luce, whose Romanesque work seems to have graced several cities in New England during the latter half of the 19th century.

The Windsor Hotel as it appeared with the Holyoke Opera House attached at its rear wall. While both buildings were constructed in 1877, the Hotel itself proved short-lived as it burned down in 1899.

Ultimately both buildings succumbed to fire, but while the Hotel fell in 1899, the Opera House didn’t come under the wrecking ball until 1967- leaving behind a century of theatrical productions. The opera house celebrated its opening night sometime in April of 1878 with a production of Louis XI, starring an actor named John Albaugh, and the noteworthy leading lady Ada Rehan, prior to her rise to national fame.

The House held enough space for an audience of 1400 people, and its stage, being 91′ across by 52′ high, was reportedly the second largest in New England at the time of its construction. To view some of the architectural elements of the opera house in greater detail, click on the highlighted areas in the image below-

Over the years the theatre changed hands a number of times, opened under management of the Chase Brothers, and subsequently one B.L. Potter, and later the Goldstein Bros. Amusement Company. By the mid-20th century the building had changed names several times, with its last iteration being the “E.W. Loews State Theater”.

An advertisement for the Holyoke Opera House from “Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide [for] 1902”, when the theatre was under the managership of B.L. Potter, who was formerly a landlord for the Windsor Hotel.
Though it has gone the way of vaudeville, entering in the annals of American history, its memory still persists in the minds of many to this day.

Box Seats in the Holyoke Opera House