MONTPELIER — The annual summit for the state’s conservation commissions will be done differently this year, which organizers say is fitting because the central theme will largely be about change.
“This year, the theme of the summit is conservation in a time of COVID-19, and really over the last six to eight months the works of conservation and local conservation in Vermont have really been fundamentally changed and it remains to be seen what that’s going to look like into the future,” said Jens Hilke, conservation planner with the Fish and Wildlife Department, and member of the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions Board of Directors. “This summit is really getting at some of these changes that have been happening over these last six months.”
It was about six months ago that Republican Gov. Phil Scott called a state of emergency and enacted the “stay home, stay safe” order, which limited people’s movements and the activities of businesses considered nonessential. The state has reported low infection rates and deaths in contrast to other areas of the country, but like elsewhere, the economic and social impacts of efforts to control the virus’ spread have been severe.
This year, the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions fall summit will be a digital affair, with speakers and panels spread out over the course of a few weeks. The lineup and how to register can be found online at bit.ly/0915Fallsummit
Conservation commissions are arms of town-level government. State statutes allow towns to give them the ability to hold funds, buy land and other functions. Hilke said their roles are often advisory and they regularly advise planning commissions.
The first AVCC session will be on Sept. 23 from noon to 1 p.m. and will be about the importance of town-owned forests.
“Natural areas and town-owned lands, have been seeing a real uptick in usage — anecdotally — during quarantine, and most importantly a lot of people have been thinking about these lands differently, and so that’s getting into that sort of piece of how much more we value these town-owned lands and understand their intrinsic value as places of refuge even in a quarantine,” said Hilke.
The second session will be Oct. 17 from noon to 1 p.m. and will focus on how conservation commissions have adapted to working during a pandemic.
“And the idea there is, how have conservation commissions changed the way they do business over the last six months? In some cases, they’re holding meetings in-person, they’re outside and socially distant, everyone brings their own lawn chair,” said Hilke.
On Oct. 21, also from noon to 1 p.m., there will be a panel looking at land conservation and racial equity.
“The Black Lives Matter movement over the last six months, with the killing of George Floyd, is helping us look at institutional racism in our own institutions and that includes conservation,” said Hilke. “We want to hear from black, indigenous, and people of color about their perspectives on how conservation is done.”
Happening alongside the pandemic has been a great deal of civil unrest over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died March 25 while being arrested by Minneapolis police.
The Oct. 21 panel is slated to feature Donald Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk, Abenaki Nation. Other speakers are being confirmed.
“We’re hoping to get a goat farmer from the Pine Island Farm who can really talk about food security and the importance of culturally appropriate foods,” said Hilke. “We’re thrilled to challenge our members to think differently about how conservation can be done.”
The next event will be Nov. 4 from noon to 1 p.m. and be centered around agriculture and water quality.
Capping the virtual summit will be a talk by Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.
Costello said Monday he’s been asked to discuss the concepts of resilience and recovery, given his and the work of others on a state task force created by the governor to help bring the state back from the damage caused by COVID-19.
He said a true recovery likely won’t be going back to the way things were before the pandemic.
“Lots of places were struggling with the loss of youth or with economic stagnation, and we’re really at a crucible at this moment of how we frame the future of Vermont,” said Costello.
He said the pandemic has created a situation where Vermont needs to look at the security of local food supply lines and the role of its landscape in the economy.
Costello said Vermonters have an opportunity to buy things made closer to home rather than sending their money elsewhere for imports. Boosting the local economy by adding value to what Vermonters produce will help safeguard against the next crisis, be it another pandemic, a cyberattack or some other unexpected problem.