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A Change in Land Conservation

By Nick Richardson

Much has changed in 45 years.

In 1977, the year the Vermont Land Trust was founded, Interstate-89 was still under construction, the population of Vermont was just under half-a-million, and Act 250, Vermont’s landmark land-use planning law, was only seven years old.

The challenges and opportunities facing Vermont then shaped our work in those early years. Today, climate change, persistent inequality, and economic trends in farming and forestry, among many other forces, are placing new pressures on Vermont’s land and communities — pressures that require all of us, and the work we do, to change. 

The question is, how will we meet this moment? How will we respond to population growth? Stronger and more erratic weather events? A housing and land affordability crisis? The health of our farms, forests, and natural areas — and our relationship to them — depends upon the actions we take today. 

The Vermont Land Trust is evolving to meet this moment by doing what we do best: putting land at the center of our well-being. We are ramping up support for successful farm transitions, strengthening the health and resilience of our lands in the face of climate change, and increasing access to land by connecting people to open spaces, forests, and trails that ground us. 

Take, for example, our recent work to improve the health of rivers and streams. Over the past several months, and in partnership with farmers and the Department of Environmental Conservation, the trust has protected nearly eight miles of river and stream frontage in the Lake Champlain and Connecticut River watersheds to strengthen clean water and climate resilience.

Consider the story of Gabby Tuite and Henry Webb of Old Road Farm. Gabby and Henry are passionate and skilled vegetable farmers who couldn’t afford the high cost of buying a farm on their own. Working with the land trust, they were able to buy a 24-acre farm in Granville where their business has since flourished, allowing them to hire three employees. We have helped hundreds of farmers just like Gabby and Henry, and there are hundreds more yet to support.

Aligning conservation with justice is another important focus, requiring us to show up differently and define success with partners in new ways. For example, with Indigenous people and other conservation organizations, we have agreements in place that clarify access to conserved lands and the right to gather or engage in cultural practice. In this instance, the intent of this work goes beyond conservation to deepen belonging and inclusion on the land.

We are also working with leaders from Indigenous communities, Black-led organizations, and other people of color to establish a Justice and Equity Fund seeded with a gift from the High Meadows Fund. Our first step has been to show up, listen, and learn from people who have been historically marginalized and excluded. Over the next few months, we will convene discussions with the help of consultants to develop a joint framework for getting these funds into the hands of people who will put them to work best. We are only at the beginning of this journey, and more is to come.

Every day we strive to improve the health of our land, our people, and the natural world. So much depends on it. The opportunities and challenges of today require that we reimagine the role of conservation, and its power to unite land and lives, for us all.

Nick Richardson is the President and CEO of the Vermont Land Trust.