On June 30, 2023

New law gives Vermonters a chance to build a conservation vision 


By Drew McConville

Editor’s note: Drew McConville, a resident of Montpelier. He is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, and a former official at the White House Council of Environmental Quality under President Obama.

Vermonters who value outdoor access, healthy forests and clean water recently celebrated the enactment of a new law establishing ambitious, long-term goals for protecting land in the state. But as laudable as this step is, the important and hard work starts now.

H.126, the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act, sets targets of conserving 30% of land in the state by 2030 and 50% by 2050. It also sets the stage for Vermont to chart an intentional and inclusive pathway for protecting treasured natural areas, while meeting housing needs, enabling smart growth, supporting sustainable farms and forests, and preserving the character of our state. 

As someone who has worked for 20 years on national conservation policy and was drawn to Vermont for the healthy, outdoor experiences it offers our family, I’m excited to see the state stepping up. This measure positions the state to lead in a national and global effort to combat the loss of nature and biodiversity, which has accelerated in tandem with the climate crisis. 

Globally, scientists estimate that one million species are now threatened by extinction, while the United States is losing the equivalent of a football field of natural area every 30 seconds. To address this crisis, President Biden established a national goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 and launched an America the Beautiful initiative that has unlocked new conservation funding, established new protected areas, and focused resources on providing equitable access to nature. 

Meeting just over the border in Montreal, world leaders from 196 nations agreed last December to a historic biodiversity framework establishing a similar “30×30” goal for global land and ocean conservation. And, along with Vermont, states like California, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico and New York have also set new conservation goals.

Despite some early progress, what comes next to achieve these goals remains murky. In Vermont, the new law creates an exciting opportunity to secure the natural legacy of the Green Mountain State while setting a model that could guide other parts of the country. But success will require a sustained commitment by state and community leaders that prioritizes inclusion and collaboration, centers meaningful progress over narrow accounting, and delivers concrete, tangible results.

It all starts with building a vision that incorporates the many perspectives Vermonters bring to the table. The law directs the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to develop a plan for achieving the state’s conservation goals that draws on public input. For this ambitious plan to succeed, state leaders and nonprofit partners will need to deeply invest in a process that involves all voices and generates a plan everyone can see themselves in. 

That doesn’t just mean scientists and conservation experts. It means farmers and foresters, hunters and mountain bikers. It means Abenaki, people of color and other historically marginalized groups, as well as municipal leaders, housing developers, small business owners, and many others. 

Sustaining an effective statewide effort will also require working collectively to achieve a broad vision for Vermont rather than getting hung up on narrow definitions of what “counts” toward the targets. After all, the “30×30” idea isn’t just an accounting exercise. It’s intended to be an urgent call to action that brings everyone together to conserve nature. 

Thankfully, Vermont’s new law embraces that idea. It recognizes that we need action on all fronts — more “forever wild” lands, more support for working forests, and more access to nature for all — as well as sustainable growth and healthy farmland outside of those natural areas. 

Of course, the new law will fail if it produces only a lengthy plan that sits on a shelf. Tangible, meaningful action should be the guiding mantra, and leaders would be wise to identify early victories that can build momentum. 

A slew of new federal grant opportunities, including Inflation Reduction Act funding, gives Vermont that chance if state officials and partners pounce on them. Meanwhile, willing business leaders should step up, and philanthropic giving and nonprofit commitment should match the scale of this statewide commitment.

Finally, realizing the potential for a green, healthy Vermont will require looking beyond state borders. From Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River, our watersheds depend on our neighbors’ choices. Likewise, our wildlife doesn’t stop at state lines. Vermont leaders already know they can accomplish more together with our Northeastern partners and should make regional collaboration a cornerstone of the state’s plan.

If Vermont can get it right, this law could generate a legacy of action that everyone sees themselves in. It could help preserve more of the places we love for our grandchildren. It could also provide cleaner water, bolster our climate change efforts, make outdoor access more equitable, and secure the economic benefits of nature our state depends on.

In the process, we might even set a model that other places can follow too. 

That’s an exciting prospect. 

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