Biodiversity bill aims to ‘permanently protect’ 50% of Vt. state lands by 2050

Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 5:42 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - To conserve or to develop? That is the question lawmakers continue to wrestle with in Montpelier, recognizing the need for housing and protecting the environment. A bill introduced in the Vermont House, H.126, looks to cut down the middle of both issues.

The bill proposes having 30% of Vermont’s land permanently conserved by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Vermont is currently a forest-heavy state; just under 75% of the state’s landscape is wooded, but that isn’t something Vermonters can take for granted.

“This bill picks up where the national and international community leaves us off as a state,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-East Middlebury.

The United Nations has identified biodiversity loss as a serious concern for the health of life on earth. Their solution-- permanently conserve land where ecosystems can thrive. Vermont is looking to jump in.

“This bill is seeking to conserve 50% of the land,” Sheldon said.

The legislation sets a plan in place for the Natural Resources Agency to identify where the conservation of public and private land and water would be best suited.

There are three approaches to conservation: ecological reservations, where management is minimal and nature is encouraged to take over; biodiversity areas, where habitats and the species that rely on them are encouraged to thrive; and natural resource management, where the forests can be used responsibly for human benefit.

“Conserving is not locking away from human use, conserving is about how to include humans in the landscape over the long term,” said Jon Erickson, an environmental studies professor at the University of Vermont.

Experts say the first 30% goal is attainable. We already have about 24% of Vermont’s land permanently conserved.

“Up until this point, we have been doing this sort of piecemeal. We need a big, bold goal. We need a comprehensive plan. We need all hands on deck to get this done,” Erickson said.

But some in Vermont are concerned about signing on.

“Vermonters have spoken. Vermonters are very clear: we need workforce housing, we need to solve the crisis we have with unhoused people,” said Matthew Musgrave of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.

Musgrave says he is not anti-environment or conservation, but believes housing should come first.

“It sounds like a great idea, but really we are just arbitrarily planning and not actually following a smart growth plan to get us where we are going,” he said.

Sheldon says this planning is critical. By focusing on conservation, we can also focus on development so we can benefit from both.

“Build that infrastructure in our downtowns and hopefully increase development there and maintain the landscape that we all know and love, and is the reason we have the Vermont we know and love,” she said.