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Vermont just set a new goal for conserving land: Here’s what’s next.

 The sun shines through a cloudy sky on a peaklet in the distance. The mountains are covered in conifers and the view is from a summit looking down at other mountains.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
The view south from Mount Abraham in Addison County.

Gov. Phil Scott has allowed a major land conservation bill to become law without his signature.

The Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act sets a goal to permanently conserve 30% of all land in Vermont by 2030.

That’s in keeping with President Joe Biden’s "30 by 30" executive order, which sets the same goal nationwide.

But Vermont’s policy goes further, setting a goal to conserve 50% of all land in the state by 2050.

The law calls for an inventory of land that’s conserved now. And it calls for public input on a plan for how to get to 30 by '30 and 50 by '50.

Scott vetoed a similar bill last year, but he says this year's bill better balances conservation goals with Vermont's need for more housing.

"This bill anticipates the need for housing and for the conservation plan to incorporate Smart Growth principles to ensure future conservation investment does not impede the buildout of areas the state has designated for growth," Scott said.

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 governor asserted in a statement about his decision that the law leaves room for the Agency of Natural Resources to interpret conservation broadly.

Conservation goals focused on biodiversity

Rep. Amy Sheldon, a Democrat from Middlebury who chairs the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says Vermont will only need to get smarter about conservation in the face of climate change.

"This idea of having a goal set in statute for conservation, to me, was always complementary and supportive of our statewide goals of compact village centers surrounded by rural working lands and natural areas," Sheldon said.

More from NPR: A U.N biodiversity convention aims to slow humanity’s ‘war with nature’

Sheldon says this law builds on the work Vermonters have already done to care for the landscape.

"We know that 74% of Vermont today is forested, even more of Vermont has not been developed," Sheldon said. "And in order for Vermont to stay Vermont as we do grow and change with climate change, this bill will help us keep the Vermont we know intact for future generations."

It's unclear how much of Vermont's currently conserved land would currently qualify toward the 30% goal; a preliminary count of conserved land in each town shows wide variation across the state.

Over the next 1 ½ years, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board will work with the Agency of Natural Resources to inventory the state's already conserved lands and make a plan for how to reach the new conservation goals.

A black bird with white markings in a sunny, grassy location
John Hall
Vermont Fish and Wildlife
The bobolink has been disappearing from the Northeast and landowners are being asked to delay their haying to give them a chance to survive.

The Vermont Natural Resources Council, Nature Conservancy, Vermont Land Trust and Audubon Vermont, among other environmental groups, praised the new law.

“In the midst of biodiversity collapse and a rapidly-changing climate, the time for strategic investment in conservation of our lands and waters is now,” said Lauren Oates, director of policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Vermont.

A U.N. report from 2019 found that an estimated one-eighth of the plant and animal species on earth are at risk of going extinct because of human activity.

The most recent Vermont Climate Assessment says the state is not immune to these trends, as wildlife and plants here face mounting pressure from new disease and invasive species in the face of climate change.

"I think our definitions of conserved lands will help other states also realize that this whole idea of 30 by '30, and frankly 50 by '50, are grounded in a focus on conserving biodiversity and natural function," Sheldon said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Corrected: June 14, 2023 at 7:19 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Rep. Amy Sheldon is from Ripton. Rep. Sheldon lives in and represents Middlebury.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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