Environmental optimism

As Vermonters, we are proud of the state we call home. We are by nature a rather independent lot, but we value our connections to the land and to one another. We also recognize and struggle with the trade-offs inherent in continued growth and development, striving to preserve what we can of the past and to shape the future in ways that make our lives and our communities more healthy and more livable. And our efforts have not been without considerable success.

From the vantage of either an airplane or a mountaintop, it is clear that much of Vermont is forested—and each year more of what was once farmland is either developed or allowed to revert to forest. More than 11,000 Vermonters make their living in the wood products industry—and the timber harvest in Vermont continues at a rate that is considered sustainable.

Besides our own human communities, Vermont is home to diverse plant and wildlife communities. These aquatic and terrestrial communities are the natural home for the many plant and animal species that also reside within our state’s borders. Although it is the natural and not the developed landscape that visually dominates Vermont, critical habitat has been lost and made isolated by development. More and more, however, town planning commissions, conservation commissions, students, and other Vermonters are taking into account the need to avoid fragmenting habitat and maintaining vegetated corridors between larger tracts of undeveloped land and along stream and river banks.

The Barton River Integrated Enhancements project has brought together schools, businesses, and communities to restore and prevent further erosion damage within the riparian zone along the Barton River. Students at Lake Region Union High School work with community members and local businesses to address erosion and siltation problems along the river. The goals of the effort are to re-establish riparian vegetation and to recreate an uninterrupted wildlife corridor extending all the way from Orleans Village to Barton.

In addition to the riverbank work, Lake Region students have constructed a bluebird trail with more than 100 nesting boxes stretching from Irasburg to Derby. In 1998, Advanced Placement biology students checked 83 of the boxes and discovered that 23 had been adopted as homes for eastern bluebirds. Of these 23 nesting boxes, there were 13 with eggs or young birds, with an average of four eggs per box.

The image of a peregrine falcon graces the state’s conservation license plate and, after a prolonged absence, these incredible birds have returned to Vermont. The story of the peregrine offers another reason for hope and environmental optimism. The peregrine— fastest bird in the world, capable of exceeding 200 miles per hour—was entirely wiped out in Vermont and throughout the Northeast in the 1960s by the pesticide DDT, which accumulated in the food chain and led to the thinning and breaking of their egg shells. With the banning of DDT, the birds have made a comeback. Now the peregrine has reclaimed many of its cliffside aeries in the state. From 12 pairs in 1995, the population climbed to at least 21 pairs in 1999.

State biologists reported another record-breaking year of reproductive success for the common loon, a species considered endangered in Vermont since 1987. Of the 33 pairs that attempted to nest in 1999, 25 loons hatched 41 eggs, with 36 chicks surviving through August. These represent the highest numbers of nests, eggs hatched, and chicks surviving through August since the state began keeping records in 1978.

An estimate of the total population of common loons in Vermont is made annually on the third Saturday in July. (See Figure 1.) This year’s Loon Watch involved more than 240 volunteers who surveyed lakes and ponds throughout the state during one specific hour. Official loon population estimates are based on the same 100 lakes surveyed each year. This year’s census found 112 adult loons, 5 juveniles, and 35 chicks. Although their numbers are increasing in Vermont, there are not enough loons for biologists to consider their population secure.

About one in eleven children in America have high levels of lead in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thousands of Vermonters unknowingly have lead in their homes. Before we knew how harmful it could be, lead was used in paint, gasoline, water pipes, and many other products. Preventing the release of lead into the environment began as early as the 1970s when gasoline was reformulated to eliminate lead. In 1978, lead-based house paints were banned, and lead solder was banned in 1988.

As a result of these and other similar actions, Vermonters are more aware than ever of the need to prevent lead exposure, especially for young children. And although lead is still an environmental health problem of concern in and around our homes and other buildings where lead-based paints were once used, its incidence both in the atmosphere and in soils of the natural environment has stabilized and, in some cases, declined. In addition, the toddler blood lead level, an important indicator of lead exposure in young Vermonters, has declined steadily throughout this decade. (See Figure 2.)

Lead is still a threat to species in the wild, however. The Agency’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has begun a campaign to warn anglers about how loons and other bottom-feeding waterfowl can die of lead poisoning after swallowing lead fishing sinkers and jigs lost by anglers. Eight of 15 adult loons examined for their cause of death between 1989 and 1998 in Vermont died of lead poisoning from fishing sinkers.

Individual Vermonters are also working to eliminate the use of lead sinkers. Alyssa Borowske and Brittany Moffatt are both Cadette Girl Scouts from Barre. (See full story) These two young women completed their Silver Award service project with a hometown project to encourage the use of non-lead sinkers. Alyssa and Brittany started a "get the lead out" campaign at their school, sponsored a poster contest with lead sinker awareness as the theme, and worked with the Barre Fish and Game Club to make its annual Gunner Brook Fishing Derby the state’s first lead-free fishing event. On that one day alone, they collected eight pounds of lead sinkers and swapped more than 200 sample packets of non-lead sinkers. (See sidebar)