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Watts: Changing Landscapes

Early visitors to Vermont found it a beautiful and wild place but with far too many trees. So they set to work, carving farm fields out of the old-growth forests, pulling stumps from the ground, cutting 100-foot fir trees into chunks for firewood, planks for houses and masts for ships. By the time they were done, Vermont was nearly 80 percent cleared. The remaining trees were mostly relegated to the sides of mountains and the northern regions of the state.

In their place came thousands and thousands of small farms and sheep - so many that at one time the state had more sheep than people. Addison County, for example, was the largest provider of wool in the country. As these early farmers became more prosperous, they turned to building places for the community to gather, like taverns, churches and general stores. They carved towns and villages out of the landscape, built farms on the hills and mountain slopes. Then wool prices dropped sharply. Hill farmers abandoned their farms. And shrub, then evergreens began to grow in the now-empty fields.

Today, the trees are back and Vermont is again mostly forested. Yet farms, open fields and villages remain an important feature of the landscape that is central to our love of Vermont.

But landscapes change. They’re never static. And among other factors, they reflect the impact of thousands of decisions made by human beings, as they shape the land to meet the evolving needs of their community. Just as people do, landscapes have a history, and much of it is the history of what people do. Take energy for example. Early Vermont was powered by small dams, coal fired power plants and wood. The dams changed the course of rivers. Cutting firewood cleared our forests.

Today our electricity comes mostly from hydro, wind, solar and natural gas. One hundred years ago Vermonters used as much electricity in 12 months as some of us do now in a single day.

I for one believe in renewable energy – energy powered by the sun, wind and water. This leads me to conclude that wind turbines on some of our ridges and solar panels in some of our fields are an essential and necessary part of our landscape today. Vermont’s landscapes should evolve just as our people do.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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