By Kristen Sharpless, SLT Executive Director. This piece appeared as a Guest Perspective in the Stowe Reporter on March 5, 2020.
I recently had a chance to see the “Thank our Farmers for the View” exhibit of local and student artwork and writing inspired by farms in Lamoille County that was on display at River Arts in Morrisville. The collection is a creative and inspiring acknowledgement of how much we all owe to the people who own and work the farms in our communities.
While we are at it, let’s also express our gratitude to the people who own and work the forestland that blankets three-quarters of our state and is the scenic backdrop to our farms and towns. A similar exhibit of painting and poetry by Vermont artists titled “Shedding Light On The Working Forest” traveled the Northeast a couple of years ago revealing parallel stories of the people – including loggers, foresters, sawyers, and artisans - whose livelihoods made from the woods help to keep our forests as forests.
Exhibits like these are important reminders that we have the many different people who own, work and care for Vermont’s farm and forestlands to thank for the rural beauty and character of our landscape.
And as important and inspiring as all that is, there is so much more to it than the views. Consider this:
- Land is health care. At a time when rising health care costs are a daunting concern in Vermont and nationwide, it’s critical that we continue to invest in providing access to greenspaces and outdoor recreation opportunities for all, which has been shown to reduce stress, depression, obesity and overall medical costs.
- Land cleans our water and air. When we permanently protect forestland and make water quality improvements on conserved farms, we help to clean up Lake Champlain and other impaired waters, provide our communities with clean drinking water, and reduce future water treatment costs. A recent study indicates that every $1 spent on conserving important land in Vermont since 1988, has already yielded a $9 return in the form of natural goods and services, like air and water filtration.
- Land is climate-smart. Nature-based solutions, including maintaining healthy forests and protecting floodplains and wetlands, are among the Scott administration’s “Top Climate Solutions” for improving safety and disaster readiness, growing jobs, reducing energy and transportation costs, and supporting a more resilient economy and environment for Vermonters. Protecting these lands safeguards other property from increasingly severe flooding and weather. For example, it is estimated that floodplains and wetlands reduced damages in Middlebury up to 95% during Topical Storm Irene in 2011, saving the town as much as $1.8 million in flood damages.
- Land is good for our economy. When many local economies are struggling and Vermont’s overall population is aging, land-based enterprises are among our best hopes for a revitalization that preserves what makes Vermont special. Tourism and outdoor recreation are arguably the biggest land-based economic drivers in our state; tourists and residents generate $5.5 billion in annual consumer spending statewide when enjoying mountain biking, skiing, hiking, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor recreation activities in Vermont. That spending generates $505 million in annual tax revenues and an associated $1.5 billion in wages and salaries. In addition, the Vermont forest products economy generates $1.48 billion in economic output annually, while Vermont farms produce $786 million in agricultural commodities.
- Land is why people come here. And why they stay. Although Vermont may never be able to compete as the best state for business in the United States, in 2018, CNBC ranked Vermont as number one for highest quality of life in part because of our “beautiful outdoor environment.” This high-quality of life is a major part of what attracts and retains visitors, second homeowners, employees, and future residents.
Working with willing landowners to permanently protect our farm and forestlands is one conservation strategy with proven, enduring returns on investment across multiple sectors. When coupled with similar investments in affordable housing through entities like the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the benefits multiply and are likely among the best we can achieve toward meeting our communities’ most pressing needs.
So, thank our farmers and love our loggers. They deserve and need all the appreciation we can give. But don’t leave it at that. There is too much at stake. Do more. Buy local when you can. Participate in town and regional planning discussions. Back legislation that is friendly to sustainable, land-based enterprises like farming, forestry, outdoor recreation, and tourism. And show your support for continued strategic and sensible investments in land conservation.