Conservation bill aims to preserve half of Vermont’s land mass by 2050

Published: May. 22, 2023 at 6:04 PM EDT|Updated: May. 22, 2023 at 6:36 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A bill on the way to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott seeks to conserve up to half of the state’s land in the next three decades. But some are worried about the impacts of conserving so much land.

On a late spring day, Jim McCullough, a former Vermont lawmaker, reflects on his family’s history of owning land.

“My family’s place of living since 1841 if you go to the first cousin,” he said.

McCullough and his wife, Lucy, enrolled their land, originally owned by the son of Vermont’s first governor, in the Use Value Appraisal program. That gave them a tax break in exchange for keeping the land undeveloped.

Now, the Catamount Community Forest encompasses 393 acres in Williston with Nordic skiing, biking and hiking trails.

“We aren’t making land anymore is the saying, but we are using and abusing it more and more,” McCullough said.

A bill on its way to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott looks to give other landowners a similar path to conserve land. H.126 creates a blueprint for maintaining an ecologically diverse state, coming up with strategies to work with landowners, with the aim of conserving 30% of the state by 2030 and 50% by 2050.

“This is an opportunity to step back and say, ‘How can we do this well in Vermont?’” said Jamey Fidel of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Vermont has several programs for conservation, such as enrolling in current use or selling development rights to organizations like the Vermont Land Trust. This bill would explore additional ways to keep land open.

“It’s really to develop strategies to work with landowners that would like to achieve conservation. What are the tools that are necessary to help them, what incentives are helpful?” Fidel said.

But others are worried about the impacts of conserving so much land. At a recent meeting of Vermont foresters, dozens met with state officials to find ways to support landowners in the stewardship of their land.

Ed Larson of the Vermont Forest Product Association says they are working to understand what the planning process means for their industry in the long run.

“Our rural communities really depend on a viable forest product industry as well as agriculture to maintain their viability. It could have a ripple effect on Vermont’s rural economy,” Larson said.

Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a similar bill last year over concerns it focused on permanent land conservation instead of other options.

“It’s not just about quantity of conservation but quality of conservation,” Vt. Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said.

This year, the bill gives landowners a larger range of conservation tools, not just permanent conservation.

“There may be other programs and tools we have to try to protect that ecology and meet the landowners’ interests,” Moore said.

Lawmakers delivered the bill to the governor in the final days of the legislative session. He’s expected to act on the bill in the coming days.