Vermont’s Green Front The Green Mountain State Is Having Trouble Living Up to Its Image

Vermont is nationally regarded as a place of long bloodlines, socialist Senators, working landscapes, eco-conscious businesses and vast tracts of forest. This woodsy, roll-up-the-sleeves image of the state’s environment, politics and economy is a major part of what constitutes the Vermont “brand,” attracting residents and businesses, and giving Vermont products that certain cachet.

Historically, the state’s been able to flaunt its progressive legislation, such as the ban on billboards in 1968 and Act 250 in 1970, which required that large land development projects must meet a set of criteria to prevent local municipalities and ecosystems from being overwhelmed by poorly executed projects. The Agricultural and Managed Forest Land Use Value Program (or Current Use Program), passed in 1978, helped protect working forests. Due to these programs, Vermont has, in general, managed to maintain its rural flavor and unique character. But some are arguing that the state needs to step up to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

According to Christopher Klyza, Stafford Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and co-author of The Story of Vermont (Middlebury), the state faces three major environmental challenges: a lack of reliable public transit options, a reticence regarding renewable energy and an inability to effectively regulate the many types of farmers in the state.

Vermont is one of the most rural states in the nation, so driving long distances is often unavoidable. Yet according to Chris Brown of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Act 250 does not prevent the development of sprawl-based land use patterns. In addition, public transit in the state is nearly nonexistent outside of urban centers. By allowing for sprawl without transit, car usage will have to grow, air quality will decline and Vermont’s iconic small town centers will slowly fade—along with that aspect of the state brand.

In warmer months, Lake Champlain experiences blooms of blue-green algae as a result of runoff.

When it comes to renewable energy, Klyza says “Vermont’s energy policy isn’t entirely mature…We who claim we want renewable energy cannot bring ourselves to have it locally. Even the governor [Republican Jim Douglas, who will not run for reelection this year] is opposing wind—his view is tourism would be troubled due to the ruined views.” In nearby New York, wind turbines are a common site in farmers’ fields, part of the scenery of a working landscape, and help farmers financially. Meanwhile, Vermont’s nuclear power plant—Vermont Yankee—was found in February 2010 to be leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater and the Connecticut River. “Things have gotten so bad at Vermont Yankee that even Mr. Douglas has had to criticize them,” says Mark Floegel, a Greenpeace researcher involved in that group’s Nuclear Free Vermont campaign, “but he still supports giving the plant another 20 years of life.”

And Klyza says the state needs to be honest about the negative environmental impacts of farming beyond the bucolic postcard images. He says: “Farmers are pretty close to being sacred here, and we haven’t been able to effectively take on runoff issues due to this attitude.” Chris Brown agrees. “We are very supportive of farmers and the Current Use Program, but we ought not to kid ourselves,” he says. “Farms pollute, and we need to help farmers fix that.”

In warmer months, Lake Champlain experiences blooms of blue-green algae, a result of agricultural runoff. These blooms earned the lake a place in Peter Greensberg’s recent book Don’t Go There!: The Travel Detective’s Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World (Rodale Books). This distinction seems to reflect a comment of Klyza’s about how Vermont has “a real fixation on the working landscape, and less interest in the wild landscape. We want to protect farms and working forests, but wilderness isn’t really a Vermont thing. Wildlands preservation and ecological reserves really get pushed to the back burner.”

In spite of the importance of the lake to tourism, and Governor Douglas sponsoring the Clean and Clear Action Plan, which has targeted $102 million in federal money for cleaning up the lake, farm runoff continues to contaminate state waterbodies, because it’s not being dealt with at the source. Douglas, says Floegel, “has lashed out at the Environmental Protection Agency for having the temerity to point out that after eight years of his “Clean and Clear” program, parts of Lake Champlain are turning into nutrient-rich green goo.”

The inability to craft modern environmental management legislation is undermining Vermont’s image. This image is the foundation of the “Made in Vermont” label. Andrea Cohen, the public policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility which has 1,100 members, says, “the most important thing legislators can do for business is to not mess up the Vermont brand and quality of life. It’s our special asset. It’s our niche. We can’t offer businesses tax breaks like other states, but we can offer this brand.”

In late Februrary, perhaps signaling a turnaround, the Vermont Senate listened to residents and voted 26 to 4 to close down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant after 2012. It was the first time a nuclear plant had been voted into retirement in more than 20 years, and the only time such a decision was ever made by state government.