One of my favorite parts about living in Vermont is our ability to defy description, particularly in a time where it has become acceptable in our country to separate and label entire groups of people, placing them in boxes based on beliefs, actions or appearance.
I am proud to live in a brave little state full of hyphens. What do I mean by this? Simply that we don’t summarize our fellow citizens using one-word labels. To capture the complex character of my friends and neighbors, I often find myself assembling beautiful run-on sentences that would make my high school English teacher cringe.
I introduce my neighbor as the hunter-farmer-outdoorsy-blacksmith-birder. When describing my friend, I call him an artsy-mechanic-logger-dad-artisan-quarry worker. And I’m not the only one who introduces people like this. In Vermont, we understand that people are not monolithic, and knowing this, we refuse to allow ourselves to be described as such. We are Jacks and Jills of many trades.
Next week, many Vermonters will be gearing up for the start of Vermont’s popular 16-day rifle deer season. It is a season as old as our state. Hunting and fishing have been a part of Vermont’s culture since its founding. It’s also a great time to witness our ability to go beyond predetermined categories. We are not simply hunters, bikers or hikers. So many of us are biking-hiking-hunting-foraging people who enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities. Better yet, we respect the variety of reasons that brings each one of us into the woods, regardless of whether we participate in that activity or not.
So, when it comes to our long list of hyphenated adjectives and descriptors, I would add a word: conservationist. Collectively, we know our local forests like the back of our hand. We walk in them during every season, spend countless hours on trails, traverse ancient stone borders and learn the intricacies of the plant life. No matter the recreational activity we participate in, we have a deep, shared knowledge and familiarity with Vermont’s woods. Conservation is not, and should never become, an exclusive club for an elite group of people. Just as we all enjoy Vermont’s outdoors, we each have a role in helping to care for Vermont’s woods, wildlife and waters.
For conservation to be effective, it requires people with all kinds of interests, hobbies and backgrounds, to do right by the land. Every one of us has an important role to play in protecting Vermont’s woods, water and wildlife — in conservation — and it looks different for everyone:
— An Orange County resident buys her first hunting license and this money goes directly into funding state conservation programs.
— A local birder advocates for conservation on his blog, where he writes about the incredible array of species he saw on his trip to the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge.
— A mountain biking enthusiast in the Northeast Kingdom attends a local conservation commission meeting to brainstorm ways to expand a trail network for the biking community that is mindful of important wildlife habitat areas in her town.
In Vermont, I see examples of people-powered conservation every day. There are countless stories of neighbors reaching across aisles, ideologies and geographic divides to protect and steward our lands and waters. One example is the work being done by Cold Hollow to Canada (CHC). More than two-thirds of Vermont’s forests is privately owned, meaning that it is essential to engage individual forestland owners in the collective work to maintain healthy forests across Vermont.
CHC works with groups of landowners from a town with contiguous, or nearly contiguous, forested properties, focusing their management activities on a landscape scale. The neighbor-to-neighbor collaboration results in a cumulative impact that is more significant compared to the effect one property owner can have on their own. Landowners share experiences and receive support from CHC for practices that run the gamut from wildlife habitat development to water quality protection to invasive species control and even climate change resiliency.
As for me, I am a hiker-engineer-occasional angler-mom-paddler-conservationist. A lot of hats for certain, but no more (and quite possibly a few less) than most other Vermonters. Being able to respect our differences while working alongside one another to maintain the health of our forest woodlands and waterways, while preserving public access, is one of our most important responsibilities. And one that is easiest to accomplish when we don’t let labels stand in the way of shared purpose and good work.
Julia Moore is the Secretary for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Today is decision day.
Across America, the vote is on. Some people want the status quo; others are hoping for a course correction. For today, the one thing that unites us is the willingness to speak our minds by casting our votes.
Ultimately, votes are cast with an eye toward progress.
Vermont has some serious challenges, and today’s votes will likely lead to new ideas and thinking. The Public Assets Institute last week released a report titled “A Framework for Progress: Investing in Vermont’s people, infrastructure, and good government.” In it, the policy analysts have identified areas in which our state is being held back.
What’s important is, it does not just pontificate about our problems, it puts forth attainable solutions. Attainable, of course, if there is meaningful dialogue, practical debate, thorough vetting and the absence of the political gridlock that seems to throw the brakes on any progress.
But time is running out. Without some serious ideas and progress, we are at great risk of losing ground at a time when we should be making strides and even leading on reform and policy.
The Public Assets Institute concludes that there are several areas that need to be addressed. Its work is based on a legislative challenge issued years ago.
“The Vermont Legislature launched a worthy and challenging task in 2012 when it passed a law setting forth the purpose of the state budget: to address the needs of the people of Vermont. To assure progress and demonstrate to Vermonters that the budget is doing what the law intended, policymakers should establish specific goals to achieve over the next five years.”
The law states, in part:
— The state budget should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.
— Spending and revenue policies will seek to promote economic well-being among the people of Vermont and foster a vibrant economy. Integral to achieving the purpose of the state budget is continuous evaluation of the raising and spending of public funds by systems of outcome measurement based on indicators that measure success in accomplishing the purposes of the state budget.
— Spending and revenue policies will reflect the public policy goals established in state law and recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.
According to the report, since the Legislature declared this intent, poverty in Vermont has inched down a bit — but there are still 25 percent more people living in poverty than in the early 2000s. Median household income has stagnated for years and fell last year. High-quality child care is unaffordable to many families and nonexistent in some parts of the state. And while Vermont has reduced the disparity in education funding between rich and poor communities, the disparities in educational achievement among individual students — as a result of poverty, discrimination, or other nonacademic factors — persist.
The report’s authors surmise: “It’s important to continue to track indicators of Vermonters’ well-being. But indicators are only signposts to a better Vermont. To move in that direction, the state needs a vision for the next 5, 10, and 20 years, with specific goals for reducing poverty, raising incomes for average working Vermonters, closing the achievement gap for students who face extra hurdles in school, expanding the availability of high-quality affordable child care, and addressing other pressing issues.”
That is exactly correct, and lawmakers and policymakers should bear that in mind as they look to ways to nudge Vermont free from myriad factors keeping it mired in a standstill.
While the report’s solutions and ideas are not comprehensive, they are solid and practical, especially for a rural state like ours.
The three initiatives include:
— Make work pay and ensure that all Vermonters can meet basic needs.
— Make smart, evidence-based investments in programs and infrastructure.
— Make state government more effective by increasing public engagement, fairness and transparency.
The 10-page report outlines baby bites — small tasks that can be accomplished over time — that make for meaningful change. It’s a practical approach toward a better Vermont. Why wouldn’t we take these recommendations to heart and at least use them as the springboard to broader discussions?
We can’t afford not to.
As the authors noted, “With annual total personal income of over $30 billion, Vermont has the capacity to tackle its problems if Montpelier chooses to do so. We know we can do more, because prior to the Great Recession we were putting a bigger portion of our resources into state government than we do today. Vermonters cannot afford to wait any longer for real progress.”