Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vermont Sidewalks

Compared with the other 49, Vermont is a healthy state. Vermonters live longer, have a lower infant mortality rate, and are more likely to have health insurance than most other Americans.

It is even (compared with the other 49) a thin state, with only (if "only" is the right word) 58.5 percent of the people (and 26.7 percent of the children) overweight, and 23.9 percent obese.

But when it comes to health and fitness, "compared with the other 49" sets a low bar. Compared with the rest of the prosperous world, Americans in all states are more likely to be overweight.

Furthermore, Vermont's earns its (relatively) good rating on keeping its weight down largely because the folks in Chittenden County are thinner, with "only" 20.3 percent of adults considered overweight (this from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention in 2009). Rural Vermont is fatter. In six counties, more than 25 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Orleans County tops the list at 28.8 percent.

The experts and plain old common sense agree that while there are several reasons people are overweight, two of the biggest are that they don't eat well and they don't exercise enough. Many Vermonters exercise regularly; some of them exercise obsessively. But it seems that the most common form of exercise is performed relatively little in this state: walking.

Again, experts and common sense agree that there is more than one reason why so many Vermonters appear averse to getting from here to there by putting one foot in front of the other, then repeating the process. But part of the answer has to be that in much of the state, there's no place to walk, at least not safely. There are no sidewalks.

"If you build it, they will come," said Nancy Schulz, Executive Director of the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, using the old movie line to point out that if towns build sidewalks, people will walk more. If not, they won't. Maybe Chittenden County residents are thinner because they walk more. Maybe they walk more because they have more sidewalks.

Actually, all nine cities and most of the larger towns in the state have at least some sidewalks. And by some measurements, Vermonters actually walk more than most other Americans.

According to a study for the Washington-based Alliance for Biking and Walking, 6.7 percent of Vermonters walk or bike to work, the second highest ranking in the country after Alaska.

But satisfaction with Vermont's present level of physical fitness and its rank in the walking world would be "settling for mediocrity," said Chapin Spencer of Local Motion, the Burlington-based organization that supports more sidewalks and bike paths.

Besides, that high ranking could mask a more sedentary reality. It's no secret that Vermont is chock-full of people who care about both their health and the environment. Many of these people have the kind of flexible job schedules that makes it more convenient for them to walk to work, and most of them live in sidewalk-endowed cities. It's in the rural towns and villages where walking is both difficult and rare.

A statewide survey by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont found that only 42.3 percent of the state's towns have any sidewalk at all. The best sidewalk coverage was in Chittenden County, the study found, where three quarters of the municipalities had sidewalks. At the other end of the spectrum, only 18.2 percent of n Addison County towns had sidewalks.

That figure probably overstates the extent of the sidewalk shortage, less because the survey was taken seven years ago – there hasn't been much sidewalk building since – than because it included the tiniest rural towns, gores and unincorporated hamlets, even those that have nothing resembling the kind of settled town or village center where sidewalks make sense.

But there aren't that many of those tiny towns in the state. So it seems that at least half of Vermont's towns and villages lack sidewalks, including some that had sidewalks a few decades or even a century ago.

"West Charlotte and lots of other Vermont towns had sidewalks 100 years ago that don't have them now," said Jim Donovan, who pored over some old maps in the course of leading the unsuccessful effort to get Charlotte to approve construction of a sidewalk along Ferry Road. "As far as we can tell, the sidewalks came out when the town widened and paved the road."

Because there is no sidewalk, Donovan said, "a lot of people will drive to one spot and then get back in their car and drive to another two blocks away."

That's common behavior in small towns all around the state, where it is inconvenient and unsafe to walk, say, from the general store to the Post Office, even if they are only 50 or 100 yards apart.

And would walking 50 or 100 yards (meaning 100 or 200, assuming round trips) now and then really matter when it comes to losing or gaining weight?

Could be. The data, while not conclusive, are persuasive. In general, where and when people walk more, obesity rates decline. And vice versa. One study showed that people who rode a bus to work were far less likely to be overweight than those who drove; apparently the short walks to and from both ends of the bus ride mattered.

A study published in 2006 in "Pediatrics," the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that, for children, "reduced access to facilities…was associated with decreased (physical activity) and increased over- weight." (That study was about physical activity facilities in general, not just sidewalks; but the conclusion would seem to apply to sidewalks).

According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, based on official statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments, "between 1966 and 2009, the number of children who walked or bicycled to school fell 75 percent while the percentage of obese children rose 276 percent."

As the saying goes, correlation is not causation, and the kids of 2009 were also eating more fast food than their counterparts in 1966, and probably spending more time in front of a screen and less on the playground. But all that walking and biking back then – and sitting in school buses now – must have had an impact.

Officials obviously think so, which is why both state and federal governments are trying to convince more children to walk to school. Part of that effort requires convincing more towns to build or improve sidewalks, so the kids can get there and back safely, and providing some money for them to accomplish the task, mostly through the Safe Routes to School program financed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Patti Coburn, the program's Vermont coordinator, said the state gets $1 million a year, most of which goes for building sidewalks. That's a lot of money, but, she acknowledged, not nearly enough to build all the sidewalks that could convince more parents to let their children walk to school.

Still, as the recent example of Charlotte shows, there is substantial opposition to building sidewalks in Vermont. To begin with, they cost money, both to build and to maintain, and while it isn't a huge amount of money (the Charlotte project would have cost $70,000 at most, Donovan said) without federal or state aid, "the burden falls mainly on local municipalities, so mostly on the property tax," said Local Motion's Chapin Spencer.

"I would argue," said Nancy Schulz, "that the tax money going to fund health care is going to go through the roof because obesity leads to so many chronic diseases." Weighing the cost of sidewalks against the alternative of higher health care costs makes the sidewalks a money-saver, she said.

That could be, though quantifying it would be a daunting task. Either way, a project financed by the local property tax is immediate and easily perceptible to the taxpayer. Health care is financed over time, and mostly by the Federal Government, where it is obscured by a host of expenditures ranging from defense to National Park rangers.

Besides, money is not the only reason some Vermonters don't want sidewalks. Some are also concerned that installing sidewalks would alter the character of a rural town or village.

"It was a lot more than just the money," said Tom Nola, the Charlotte retiree who led the forces voting down the sidewalk proposal there. "Charlotte is a rural town and it does not make any sense to have sidewalks."

Sidewalk advocates acknowledge that even where there are sidewalks, some people, including those who live only a few blocks from their work or a store, would rather drive. It just seems to be their default position.

But Schulz insisted, "if we provide places to walk, people will walk."

To a considerable extent, rural Vermont's lack of sidewalks is the consequence of decisions made decades ago, and not easily reversible. With the development of regional school districts, fewer schools were built in the settled village centers, more out on the highway. No one is proposing miles of sidewalks along rural roads.

The sidewalk question, then, is about more than just sidewalks. It's about how communities are envisioned and designed. For decades, Vermont and most of the rest of the country envisioned and designed communities around the automobile. But as Chapin Spencer said, "our vision for our community's shifts over time." He and others hope the shift includes recognition that maybe it would be a good idea, once one has driven to town, to walk from the library to the post office to the market, an idea that would seem even better were there a sidewalk.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Vermont's Trout Rivers After Tropical Storm Irene

Vermonters, Deb Markowitz noted, are notably self-reliant, which is good. As might be expected of self-reliant people, they are well equipped. They have tools. They have energy. They have know-how. Some of them even have heavy earth-moving equipment. In and of itself, that’s also good, noted Markowitz, the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

In the days after Tropical Storm Irene flooded so much of Southern and Central Vermont last summer, some of those self-reliant, well-quipped Vermonters “thinking they were helping,” she said, took their bulldozers and bucket-haulers into the rivers to scoop out gravel, straighten out banks, and otherwise “improve” Vermont’s rivers.

Not so good.

In this case, the know-how of these self-reliant Vermonters had to do with running the machinery, not with the science of riparian zones, nor with what fish need to thrive. As a result, scientists say, the fish populations – already degraded by the flooding – are likely to stay degraded far longer.

As will the satisfaction of the thousands of Vermonters and visitors who try to catch those fish. A dredged-out stretch of stream is an aquatic wasteland where fish can neither feed nor hide. Those well-meaning, self-reliant Vermonters may have played havoc with one of the state’s most celebrated past-times, not to mention one of its more important tourist attractions.

“In some places, people over-did it,” Markowitz acknowledged.

Perhaps even in lots of places, at least if 406,000 feet, or 77 miles of stream is considered lots of places. That’s how much ended up “with major degradation of aquatic habitat resulting from post-flood stream channel alteration activities,” according to a report by biologists at the Fish & Wildlife Department, part of Markowitz’s Agency.

That’s a small percentage of Vermont’s total river length of roughly 7,000 miles, Markowitz said. But it’s almost 10 percent of the 800 miles of river affected by Irene and its floods. And that official estimate may be low. After examining the list of degraded river in the F&W report, Kim Greenwood, the water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said it missed a few spots she knows of that were badly torn up by earth-moving equipment.

The controversy over the “managing” – and over-managing – of Vermont’s streams last year has smoldered rather than flared, partly because the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin was at first divided over the question in a peculiar and – potentially at least – politically embarrassing manner, one its officials would just as soon not discuss.

The peculiarity is that while the scientists at Fish & Wildlife were dismayed when they saw or heard about free-lance gravel-removal and bank-straightening, one prominent state official was not.

“We’ve got to get in here and get this work done,” said none other than Peter Shumlin at the time. “Irene left a mess behind and it’s got to be cleaned up.”

Irene did leave behind a mess that had to be cleaned up. In emergencies, such as clearing a road for medical vehicles, rescuing people whose homes were cut off from services, or clearing debris that might endanger a bridge or overpass in case of another heavy rain, a certain amount of digging in the rivers was no doubt necessary.

But Kim Greenwood, a scientist with a degree in aquatic resources, said some dredging was still going on more than a month later, after the roads had been open and the stranded people had been rescued.

“It went far beyond what was necessary,” she said, adding that at first the state sent a mixed message.

“The Governor was definitely not helpful,” she said. “He sent the message, ‘go ahead and dig.’”

After complaints from within the Agency of Natural Resources and from leaders of Trout Unlimited and other fishing groups, Markowitz stepped in, ending the emergency period in which towns or individuals needed only spoken permission from ANR staff to send heavy equipment into rivers.

Now the Governor does not mention dredging, but no one is denying that there was too much of it and that it was not good for the rivers or the fish. The regular trout angling season began last weekend. Markowitz said she both saw and heard about anglers catching some nice trout. Nature, she said, is “very resilient,” and Vermont can boast of some good fishing spots.

But not as many as before the front-end loaders and the trucks went into the streams.

“Where aquatic habitat has been severely altered through…channel widening and straightening, complex habitat features will need to re-establish before improvements in fish and aquatic populations can be expected,” said the F&W report.” While relatively short reaches of impacted streams may recover in a matter of years, the recovery of longer reaches may take decades…”

State officials, though, might be less conflicted and less likely to be in denial abut what happened last September than many a dweller of the river valley areas where most of the dredging took place. Or at least so it seemed to two anglers trying to find stretches of river that had been dredged and other spots where they might catch a fish.

According to the F&W report, no watershed was more heavily “managed” than the White River’s, and no branch had more work done it than the Third Branch, which basically parallels Route 12 north of Bethel. More than 55,000 feet of the Third Branch were damaged by “post-flood channel alterations,” the report said.

But the reaction from the locals was, in effect, “dredging? What dredging? Nobody saw any dredging around here.”

Finally one person, who will not be identified to avoid causing him/her any trouble, said the river had been heavily altered, and specifically referred the anglers to the spot where Camp Brook enters the Third Branch, which had been made wider and deeper by dredging.

“If you want some other spots,” came the advice, “ask the town manager, Delbert Cloud.”

“Dredging? There was no dredging,” said Delbert Cloud. “If there’s any problem with dredging, ask ANR.”

Told there was not necessarily a problem at all, Cloud said, “there was dredging all up and down these rivers. The governor said to.”

Perhaps some of the same people who so enthusiastically brought the earth-moving equipment into the rivers last fall now see the errors of their ways.

The river where Camp Brook entered it was indeed wide and deep, and seemingly dead. Catching a fish can never be guaranteed, but this was a stretch of river in which an experienced angler wouldn’t even bother to cast. It was straight, deep, devoid of any obstruction or variety.

Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry said the Vermont division between those who would “manage” rivers and those who would leave them alone does not reflect the familiar (clich├ęd?) “woodchuck-versus-flatlander” split which characterizes some environmental battles. In this case, he said, the traditionalists in the rod and gun clubs agreed with the scientists.

“There was an outcry from the angling community” over the dredging Berry said.

But some Vermonters – no doubt like some people everywhere – appear convinced that rivers should look neat and orderly, should flow evenly over an even bed, should be straight and unobstructed, bordered by banks uncluttered by dead trees or big boulders.

The scientists say the opposite condition is closer to the truth, that a healthy river with a healthy fishery curves this way and that, is shallow here and deeper there, is obstructed by fallen tree trunks and boulders, and flows over a bed rich in vegetation, sustaining the aquatic insects which in turn are eaten by fish.

Deepening a section of river with a bulldozer, they say, might reduce flooding right along that section. But it will also increase the river’s velocity, making flood conditions worse downstream.

Above all, the scientists say, a river’s flood plain should remain as intact and as natural as possible. Starting with its state capital, much of which covers Winooski River flood plain, Vermont has developed along its riversides, covering up thousands of acres of flood plain.

“Downtowns are not going to move,” said Kim Greenwood. Settling along rivers is “part of our legacy.” People live near rivers because they love them, she said, but development along riverbanks increases the need to keep as much flood plain elsewhere in its natural condition. Flooding is natural, and a river will recover from it. Recovery after a scouring by earth-moving equipment takes longer.

There are indications that many Vermonters – officials and ordinary citizens alike – have learned a lesson from last September’s activities, and that in the next big flood (and few doubt that there will be one), river bulldozing will be limited to real emergency conditions. There have been no expressions of regret from Shumlin. But Markowitz acknowledged that before Irene hit, the state “didn’t have a system in place” to deal with controlling what could and could not be done after the water receded.

Next time, she said, it will.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Vermont Firefighters

Being a firefighter, Tim Girard was saying, isn't easy.

"There's a background check, and you have to do training," said Girard, a officer of the Swanton Village Fire Department and the President of the Vermont State Firefighters Association.

And nobody, he said, does it for the money. Even though the Swanton firefighters were among the few in the state who get a small hourly wage, "you're not going to do it to get rich," Girard said. Some are attracted by "seeing the trucks go out, the firefighting gear, the red lights and sirens." For others, there's the "satisfaction of helping the community," whether by putting out a fire or helping a homeowner with water in her cellar, and….


So much for that. Even sitting there in his blue dress uniform, Girard was not in the Swanton Firehouse primarily to get interviewed. Firefighters fight fires, and that alarm was alerting Girard and the two other department members in the building that they had work to do.

In about a minute, all three of them had on their firefighting garb – waterproof overpants and long coats, heavy boots, brimmed helmets. In one more minute, up drove a pickup truck, yellow light flashing, of another member of the Department. Then another. And another. Maybe five minutes after the alarm sounded, the fire truck pulled out of the garage, headed for the fire.

Not, this time, in Swanton. Or even in the United States. The Swanton Department, Girard said, is part of the Franklin County International Firefighters Association, a Mutual Aid system that includes the Canadian towns just across the border, the site of this fire.

"We were lucky in the timing," Girard said later. The call came late in the afternoon, when enough members were home from work so a big enough crew could assemble quickly.

That's usually not a big problem for Swanton, whose fire department has 30 members on its roster, sufficient even though Girard said, "we're always looking for more."

Not every volunteer department in Vermont – or elsewhere for that matter – is in such good shape. There is a firefighter shortage in Vermont that is only likely to get worse over the next several years.

At last count, Vermont had 5,746 firefighters, the vast majority of them volunteers, according to the Department of Public Safety's Division of Fire Safety.

That's not enough. There are 249 departments, and to be fully effective, fire experts say, even a small department should have 25 members. Do the math. There should be at least 6,225 firefighters. That's "only" a shortage of 479. But that still puts the state's overall deficiency at close to eight percent, and the shortages are not evenly balanced, being worse, Girard said, in "the very small towns."

Firefighting officials are not in denial about the problem. "A lot of departments do not have enough people," said Michael O'Neill, the Executive Director of the Division of Fire Safety.

Thanks to Mutual Aid systems, this does not mean that homes and businesses in small towns are in danger of being reduced to ashes before the fire trucks arrive. Fire protection is one of the basic necessities of civilized society – public fire departments go back at least to 19th Century Britain – and is likely to be provided one way or another.

But one way might be more professional – and therefore more expensive – fire departments.

There's nothing mysterious about why Vermont's volunteer fire departments are short of volunteers. Both O'Neil and Girard point to the same social changes that have made it more difficult to recruit men (and, these days, some women) to join fire departments.

A few decades ago, Vermonters were more likely to own their own farms or to work in one of the many factories or shops right in town. If the siren sounded, they were only a few minutes away from the firehouse.

Now, many of those farms, factories, and shops are gone. People are working farther from home, many of them driving a half hour or more to work. When the siren goes off, they are too far away to respond in time.

Furthermore, in the rural areas, there simply are not as many people in what might be called their firefighting years. Vermont's population is rising – if slowly – but largely because of in-migration – the state has one of the lowest birth rates in the country – and many of the newcomers are retirees. Younger newcomers tend to flock to Burlington, which has a fully professional fire department, or its environs, where the firefighter shortage is not as acute.

Though firefighting officials hope that recruitment will pick ups as the economy improves, all indications are that the social trends holding down the number of volunteers – an aging population, job sites increasingly scattered -- will not just continue but accelerate. Finding enough firefighters could get more difficult in the future.

This does not mean fire officials can't do anything about the problem. They can, and they are doing it. For one thing, they are recruiting more actively. "Aggressive promotion," is what O'Neil calls it, and it includes holding open houses at fires stations and visiting high schools. But there's no simple "magic bullet" solution to the shortage, O'Neil acknowledged. "If there were, somebody would have found it," he said.

Firefighting has changed a lot since the days, as Girard put it, when "you just rode in the truck and put the wet stuff on the red stuff." Technology has made the job both a lot safer and a lot more complicated.

But it has not, O'Neil said, really reduced the need for people to do the work.

"The reality is that most of the advances have improved safety," he said, "but they have not necessarily improved efficiency."

One obvious answer to the manpower problem is more centralization. It's a subject Vermont fire officials discuss delicately. As with the question of Vermont's many school districts, O'Neil said, "no one wants to give up local control."

Girard noted that many rural rescue services have started hiring full-time dispatchers, a step some volunteer fire departments might have to consider as the number of people who have the time and inclination to sit in the fire station all day dwindles, perhaps to zero in some small towns.

At some point, as costs rise, several nearby small towns could decide to share that full-time, paid, dispatcher, which could be a step toward consolidating fire departments, and perhaps toward hiring a few more full-timers. Possibly, O'Neil said, a county-based firefighting system of fewer, larger, and perhaps more professional departments, looms in Vermont's future. At this point, no one seems to know much more that might cost.

Despite the shortages, O'Neil said, "Vermont is a pretty safe place," much safer, in terms of fire protection, than it used to be. Not that long ago, he said, "we had the highest fire death rate in the country." Now Vermont has one of the lowest, thanks to education and regulation. Firefighters held fire-prevention lessons at public schools. Laws passed under Gov. Howard Dean require all homes sold or re-rented to have hard-wired smoke detectors. As a result, there are fewer fires – prevention, after all, is the most effective fire fighting – and when there is a fire in a house, its residents are more likely to have time to escape.

Still, that house is more likely to burn to the ground unless an adequately staffed fire truck can get to it fast enough. Finding enough volunteers willing to face the hardships, inconvenience, and in some cases danger to ride on those fire trucks remains a challenge.