Biodiversity bill aims to ‘permanently protect’ 50% of Vt. state lands by 2050

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) – To preserve or to develop? That’s the question that continues to grapple with lawmakers in Montpelier, who recognize the need for housing and environmental protection. A bill introduced in the Vermont House, H.126, plans to limit the middle of both problems.

The bill calls for 30% of Vermont’s land to be permanently preserved by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Vermont is currently a forested state; Almost 75% of the state’s landscape is forested, but that’s not a given for Vermonters.

“This law picks up where the national and international community left us as a state,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-East Middlebury.

The United Nations has identified biodiversity loss as a serious problem for the health of life on Earth. Their solution: permanently conserving land on which ecosystems can thrive. Vermont wants to step in.

“This bill aims to preserve 50% of the land,” Sheldon said.

The legislation establishes a plan for the Natural Resources Agency to determine where conservation of public and private land and water would be most appropriate.

There are three approaches to conservation: ecological reserves, where management is minimal and nature is encouraged to take over; Biodiversity areas where habitats and the species that depend on them are promoted; and management of natural resources, where forests can be used responsibly for the benefit of people.

“Conservation isn’t about staying away from human use, conservation is about including humans in the landscape over the long term,” said Jon Erickson, professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont.

Experts say the first 30 percent target is achievable. We have already permanently conserved about 24% of Vermont’s land.

“Up to this point, we’ve been doing this kind of piecework. We need a big, bold goal. We need a comprehensive plan. We need all hands on deck to make this happen,” Erickson said.

But some in Vermont have reservations about signing up.

“Vermonters have spoken. Vermont residents are very clear: we need working-class housing, we need to solve the crisis we have with homeless people,” said Matthew Musgrave of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.

Musgrave says he’s not against the environment or conservation, but believes housing should come first.

“It sounds like a great idea, but really we’re just planning haphazardly and not really following a smart growth plan to get where we want to be,” he said.

Sheldon says this planning is critical. By focusing on conservation, we can also focus on development, allowing us to benefit from both.

“Build that infrastructure in our downtown areas and hopefully increase development there and preserve the landscape that we all know and love and that’s why we have the Vermont that we know and love,” she said .

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