Location: Soil and Water Management Research
Title: Greening Vermont: The search for a sustainable state Author
Submitted to: Journal of Environmental Quality
Publication Type: Literature Review
Publication Acceptance Date: August 28, 2013
Publication Date: November 1, 2013
Citation: Venterea, R.T. 2013. Greening Vermont: The search for a sustainable state. Journal of Environmental Quality. 42:1908. Technical Abstract: Greening Vermont is in large part a history of Vermont’s conservation and environmental movement from 1958 to the present, but is also intended as a guidebook to inspire action. It is written by and for individuals and organizations working to preserve Vermont’s natural resources, but it is also aimed at anyone seeking to learn from their experiences and perspectives. There is much to learn here, as Vermont continues to take the leading among U.S. states in implementing sustainable management of its land, water, and air. The title, Greening Vermont, refers both to the origin of the state’s name (from the French verts monts) as well as the environmental and political connotations of “green”. For many who have had the pleasure of living or recreating in its mountains and valleys, Vermont is indeed the most aptly named of U.S. states. As the book describes, it is by no accident of nature that Vermont’s landscape has retained much of its interconnected greenness. Since well-before “sustainability” became fashionable, a large proportion of Vermont’s population, steeped in a self-reliant farming tradition, have valued their natural resource base for its practical benefits as well as its inherent beauty and future services. Thus, the concepts of “working landscapes” and “local control” are central to the story. This book tells the history of how those ethics have been expressed in key individuals and organizations responding to pressures of development. The text is organized into chapters addressing each decade from the 1960s through the 2010s. The book itself appears designed to reflect the Vermont landscape. Each chapter begins with an earthy artwork piece, and the main text is interspersed with historical photographs, biographical sketches of former and current players, short essays, political cartoons, and other side-bars that make for an attractive and readable package. Each chapter also includes a bulleted summary of “Major Moments in Land Use Planning” that highlight key legislative events of the decade, and a table of demographic statistics including the numbers of cows and registered motor vehicles in the state at the start of each decade. In 1958, the interstate highway system was first extended into southern Vermont facilitating commercial and residential development. Prior to 1958, cows outnumbered humans, but during the 1960s per capita cow population declined to 0.44, per capita motor vehicle registration increased from 0.39 to 0.51, and total farm acreage dropped by 27%. These trends were met by a relatively quick response in legislative terms. In the spring of 1970, the Vermont legislature passed the landmark Act 250 which regulated land development with specific aims to protect water and air quality, limit congestion, preserve educational facilities and government services, and protect agricultural and forest soils, scenic beauty, historic sites, and wildlife habitat. Much of the book describes the subsequent history of Act 250, the success and failures of its implementation, and efforts to both weaken and strengthen its structure and objectives. The focus is on the preservation of compact town and urban town centers against the pressures of mall-and-sprawl development. But also described from the Vermont perspective are examples of just about every conceivable modern-day environmental issue from small to large and from local to global, including billboard restrictions, forest fragmentation, acid rain, aging nuclear power plants, depletion of groundwater, loss of farmland, enhancement of local food supply, increased energy conservation, and ultimately adapting to and mitigating climate change. Blow-by-blow descriptions of many political battles are described, as is Vermont’s history of strong bipartisan support for resource protection and how its conservative party, at least until the 1980s or 90s, led the way on many of these initiatives. But the authors go well beyond telling political and legislative history. They also provide their own clearly stated perspectives about how these issues are interconnected; how the finite capacity of ecosystems to absorb human impact requires something more creative than market-based policies; how a fossil fuel-based economy (or in their terms “cheap oil”) is often the ultimate source of unsustainable development; and how organized action by a critical mass of informed citizens is the only hope for maintaining the quality of life that many Vermonters hold dear.