Vt. lawmakers send major conservation bill to Gov. Scott's desk for the second year in a row
A major conservation bill that calls for the preservation of half of Vermont’s land by 2050 is headed to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk and environmental advocates are hopeful he’ll sign it this time.
The Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act, which got final approval in the House Friday afternoon, sets a goal to permanently conserve 30% of the land in Vermont by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Scott vetoed a similar measure last year.
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Vermont’s bill goes further than a 2021 executive order from President Joe Biden, which calls for conserving 30% of all land in the United States by 2030.
Importantly, the policy doesn’t require landowners or towns to conserve new land – nor does it create new regulations.
Instead, it calls for an inventory of conserved lands in Vermont, due back to lawmakers in 2024, and for the state to propose a plan for how to meet its new conservation goals.
The bill sorts conserved land into three categories – but doesn’t say how much of each Vermont should strive for:
- Ecological reserve area: land that is managed with as little human interference as possible.
- Biodiversity conservation area: land managed in a way that supports biodiversity of plants and animals
- Natural resource management area: land managed sustainably for timber harvest or regenerative agriculture.
The legislation calls for the state to include a broad group of Vermonters in the planning process including landowners, conservation groups, people working in land-based economies, historically marginalized communities as well as others. The bill also says science should drive the plan’s development.
Bill advances with strong support, environmental groups say it has teeth
The bill advanced out of the House and Senate with strong support.
It’s estimated that almost one-eighth of the plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction due to human activity — many of them within decades, according to a 2019 United Nations report.
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As the climate warms, some plants and animals will need to move on the landscape in order to adapt. Continuous swathes of undeveloped land help them do that — and some research shows Vermont is a key location for animals migrating within the region.
“This means we need to get to work on very specific aspects that we’ve neglected in conservation over the last century, to make sure that our forests, our wetlands are fully functioning,” said Zack Porter, with the forest advocacy group Standing Trees.
Porter says the fact that the bill calls for Vermont to create a science-based plan to meet these goals gives it real teeth.
Rural Republicans express apprehension
But some in the Statehouse have expressed concern about the bill — particularly Republican lawmakers from the Northeast Kingdom.
Rep. Brian Smith of Morgan sits on the House Energy and Environment Committee.
He voted against the policy, because he wanted to see an acknowledgement that some communities in Vermont have already conserved most of their land, while others have not, and may never reach 30%.
He said what’s right for Chittenden County isn’t always right for the Northeast Kingdom.
For example, by one very preliminary count, as of 2023, several Essex County towns have conserved more than 70% of their land. Meanwhile, few towns in Chittenden County have reached the 20% threshold.
“I believe that everyone in our Environment and Energy Committee all has the same goals, just some have a different way of getting to where those goals are,” Smith said.
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“I do agree that we need to protect our land, we need to keep our land as open as we possibly can, but the more the government infringes on some of that land, that’s when I started getting a little bit concerned,” he added.
Jamey Fidel, general counsel at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said he doesn’t think a 30 by 30 initiative for Vermont will necessitate more government intervention.
“Conservation works with willing landowners. So this is not a regulatory program,” Fidel said. “This is to say: for those landowners who are interested in conserving their land, how can we best help them? What are the best strategies to do that?”
Fidel says that taking new steps to protect the most valuable places in our landscape is important as Vermont works to address its housing shortfalls and encourage more climate-friendly development patterns.
Sen. Russ Ingalls, a Republican from Essex and Orleans counties, says the idea of conserving 50% of Vermont’s land permanently worries him.
Ingalls, who works in real estate, said he might support a policy that called for a less permanent approach to conservation.
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“I’m very busy. Forty percent of what we’re selling right now are second homes … and that’s not what we need,” Ingalls said. “We need young people to be able to come here to the state or stay in the state.”
Legislative counsel will review the bill, and then it’s headed for Gov. Scott’s desk.
A spokesperson for Scott said he hasn’t yet reviewed the final bill, so can’t comment on whether he supports it.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.