Vermont, as almost everyone knows, is a nature lover's delight. Green both in its politics and on the ground, the state is chock full of farm land, forest land, wild land, lakefront land, riverside.
WHOOPS! Let's back that one up a little.
Farms, forests, lakes, all true enough. And lots of green space.
But wild land? Not so much.
Less, as a percentage of its total area, than many other states. Not only the Western states with their thousands of square miles of wilderness, but also less than neighbors New York and New Hampshire.
Or even – would you believe? – New Jersey.
"It's an illuminating statistic," said Emily Boedecker, the Deputy State Director for Nature Conservancy Vermont, pointing to a map on the wall of her Montpelier office which notes how much land each Eastern state has categorized as wild. New Jersey, thanks largely to its preserved coastal wetlands, has set aside more such land than Vermont.
According to the estimation of Sweet Water Trust, a foundation that supports wild land conservation in the Northeast, only 2.83 percent of Vermont's 9,249.56 square miles have been preserved in their wildest state, with another 1.54 percent given protection as "primarily natural." Altogether, 16.74 percent of the state is "conserved land" in one form or another.
In New Hampshire, those figures are 4.28 percent, 5.68 percent and 29.51 percent. In New York, they are 4.10 percent, 5.83 percent. and 17.85 percent. Vermont's share of protected land is smaller than the combined average of all the "Northern Appalachian states" (New England plus New York).
Those are the statistics. As to why Vermont keeps less of its land wild, there are diverse explanations – natural, historical, political, cultural. To begin with, almost all land protected in its wild state was public land to begin with, and Vermont just has less public land than many of its neighbors. The Green Mountain National Forest – the only large, contiguous tract of public land in the state – is smaller than its White Mountain counterpart in New Hampshire or the "forever wild" expanses of the Catskill and Adirondack Parks in New York.
The natural causes are simple and obvious. Vermont has better farmland –"the soil is sweeter," said Boedecker – leading to more agricultural development. The Green Mountains are gentler than the Whites or the Adirondacks, so "New York and New Hampshire just have better wild land than Vermont," said Jim Northrup of Northeast Wilderness Trust in Bristol. "They have more rugged, remote, wild land which gives people a sense of solitude, and made it easier to set aside those areas as wilderness."
And at least in the past, Vermont also never had the same kind of powerful (and well-heeled) conservationist lobby that helped preserve the wild land in the Adirondack and Catskill regions of New York.
In the view of some wilderness advocates, Vermonters may be more hostile to preserving land in its wild state than are many of their neighbors. George Wuerthner, a photographer and ecologist who lives in both Richmond and out west, decried (via email) what he called "the uncritical adoration of the ‘working landscape,' (which) "by extension implies that what one may call ‘non-working landscapes' are somehow less desirable…just lazy, shiftless and obviously not holding their own."
From an ecological perspective, Wuerthner said, these wild lands "are working very hard producing clean water, wildlife habitat, clean air, flood control, functioning ecosystems and so forth."
There does seem to be some antipathy in Vermont to ‘non-working landscapes,' as though some Vermonters think that leaving land in its natural state is somehow…unnatural. The "current use" law gives landowners a lower tax rate on forest land, but only if they have an active plan for logging it. If they just leave it alone, they pay the higher rate.
In 1998, when Gov. Howard Dean and the Conservation Fund arranged to buy and protect 133,000 acres of Northeast Kingdom forests from the Champion International paper company, opposition centered around the fear that some of the land would not be logged. As a result, the Legislature insisted that most of the land be retained as "working forest" and only a 12,000-acre "core area," part of the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, was set aside as wild land.
Ben Rose, the Northeast Regional Director of the Wilderness Society, doubts that there is more anti-wilderness feeling in Vermont than elsewhere. The Champion Land debate, is said, is by now "ancient history" which occurred "in the political context of the aftermath of the Civil Unions" controversy, when the Republican House of Representatives "was very sympathetic to folks in the Northeast Kingdom who were upset that things were changing. They tried to lock in the status quo, which was the working forest. I wouldn't extrapolate too much from that one case."
But as recently as 2006, anti-wilderness sentiment persuaded Gov. Jim Douglas to block passage of a Vermont wilderness bill until some land had been stripped from the proposal. And even now, Rose and other wilderness advocates seem reluctant to call for any additions to the Federal Wilderness Protection System in Vermont. There are now eight areas of the state protected under that system, totaling about 101,074 acres. Rose said there would probably be no effort to add more land to the system at least until work begins on the Green Mountain National Forest's new Forest Plan.
Work on that plan will not begin until at least 2018, said Melissa Reichert of the National Forest.
The old wilderness fights may be over, though, at least in Vermont, where wild land advocates are focusing less on adding to the Federal system than on what Emily Boedecker called "the character of wilderness," with or without official designation. In cooperation with other public and private agencies, including Vermont's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy is coordinating an initiative called "staying connected," to provide "linkage areas" so that wildlife as small as salamanders and as big as bears can move from one large protected area to another.
It's a town-by-town local-option proposal, Boedecker said. No town has to participate, and some, she acknowledged, have said "they are not ready for a conversation."
But in Salisbury, for instance, she said, the local conservation commission has inspired people to "start walking the roads in the winter," and has created a map showing two primary routes where wildlife crosses from a swampy area to the Green Mountains. It will be up to residents of the town, she said, "to decide what they want to do about it."
Local control would not necessarily avoid controversy. Among the options would be zoning or regulation, in either case limits on the use of private land, always a dicey proposition in Vermont.
But another potential wild land initiative seeks not only to engage private landowners, but possibly to enable them earn a profit by keeping their land wild. Jim Northrup said Northern Wilderness Trust has a plan under which landowners can sell carbon credits "by placing forests under a Forever Wild easement, thereby ensuring the avoidance of conversion to non- forested conditions or the removal of carbon by logging."
The buyers would be universities, foundations or individuals seeking to offset their own carbon imprint. The transaction would be handled by the California Climate Action Reserve (CAR), through which carbon offset credits will be bought and sold starting in next year. The Trust is already "setting up a system to qualify those credits so they will be available for sale," Northrup said.
Northrup said the Trust "hasn't listed a carbon project in Vermont yet," but is "talking with some landowners" about the plan.
To some extent, the attraction of wilderness is aesthetic and abstract. People like the idea of wild land as much as they like visiting it. Even wilderness advocates acknowledge that land which is less wild often has more striking vistas and other scenic beauty. It's also easier to walk through for both people and large animals. That explains why there are fewer deer on wild land, which in turn explains why hunters often oppose creating more wilderness.
But as there is also a scientific argument for wild land, which, as Wuerthner noted helps keep air and water clean and protects biodiversity. In Northrup's view, global warming creates another imperative for protecting wilderness. Keeping parcels of the northern forests wild, he said, could preserve some cold-weather stretches of land and retard – or at least mitigate –the impact of a hotter world.