Rolls of hay dotting a field, a forested mountainside luminous with autumn color, a fisherman casting a line into a deep pool: these vignettes are all part of our state’s rural countryside – a landscape and way of life under great pressure.
We have all seen the changes. The cow pasture down the road that is now rows of identical houses, and the woods where you hunted with your father that has been subdivided and posted with “No trespassing” signs. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Vermont’s rural communities are absorbing 40% of the state’s population growth, resulting in the loss of valuable farmland, forest and wildlife habitat.
The importance of preserving the rural landscape goes beyond a desire to maintain a postcard image. Vermont’s rural lands create jobs, produce food, provide endless opportunities for outdoor recreation and draw tourists from around the globe. Vermont’s rural character is part of our past, but more importantly, part of our present and future.
It is hard to believe that over 100 years ago, approximately 75 percent of Vermont’s landscape was clear-cut. Since that time, the land has healed, the forest returned and private landowners, non-profit organizations, municipal leaders and state agencies have worked together to protect and manage these lands. Our forests now provide a variety of resources, including wildlife habitat, wilderness, clean water, recreation opportunities, and timber and forest products. There are many state programs that help protect our forests as well as tools municipalities can utilize to ensure healthy forests.
Faced with rising costs of production, farmers are seeking ways to create products that add value and increase profits. While the amount of land in production has decreased, the number of operating farms has increased as agriculture has diversified in the state. This greater diversification has occurred simultaneously with a growing awareness of the many ways eating locally-produced food benefits our health – and the health of our communities.
“If we each made a concerted effort to reallocate just 10% of what we spend on food annually to buying local products, it would mean an additional $132 million annually to Vermont’s agricultural economy.”
—Leon Graves, Former VT Commissioner of Agriculture
The State has developed innovated programs to maintain the working landscape. Twenty years ago, a coalition of affordable housing, conservation and historic preservation advocates sounded the alarm about the changing character of Vermont’s working landscape. In response, the Legislature passed the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act in 1987. Over the past twenty years, nearly $200 million has been awarded for housing and conservation projects. This investment in Vermont communities has resulted in the conservation of over 363,348 acres of land and the creation of 8,358 units of affordable housing.