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Vermont's Changing Landscape
Our more mobile society / Economic forces / The challenge / The Not-So-Visible Landscape...

For many people, the mention of Vermont brings to mind images of compact villages, covered bridges, snow-capped mountains, and a working landscape that invariably includes dairy cows. These impressions of Vermont have become a mainstay of the state's economy, enticing visitors, enhancing product marketing, and attracting new residents. Often referred to as quality-of-life factors, these perceptions of Vermont are still largely consistent with reality in most - but not all - of our state. Vermont's landscape continues to provide fertile ground for families, for agriculture, for recreation, and for businesses.

Shelburne Road photos

Left: Route 7 from the intersection of Shelburne Road and
Swift Street looking north toward Burlington in 1961.
Right: Looking south from the same spot in 1997.

Due partly to the state's largely rural population, its sometimes harsh climate, and its mountainous terrain, Vermont's landscape evolved incrementally for most of the past century.

With the building of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s, however, came improved and increased mobility. With this mobility came growth and development. And with this development came the transition from rural to more suburban communities.

The most recent Census of Agriculture reported that Vermont had a total of 5,436 farms in 1992, and that fewer than half were dairy farms. As recently as 40 years ago Vermont had more than 10,000 dairy farms. As agricultural economics continues to reduce the number and distribution of Vermont dairy farms, both the state's economy and its landscape will keep changing.

If current trends continue, travel and tourism may soon be the largest industry in Vermont. This sector of the economy is highly dependent on a clean, scenic, and accessible environment. Vermont's economy has always been and continues to be largely dependent upon the state's natural resources: fertile river-valley soils sustain agricultural activities that allow specialty foods companies to prosper; healthy forests support a timber industry that in turn provides raw materials for Vermont wood products manufacturers; and Vermont's water resources are a mainstay for tourists coming to Vermont to fish, boat, and swim.

Vermonters today produce just about everything from clothespins to microchips, part of an increasingly diverse and vibrant economy. Unlike in the 19th Century, when our state largely missed the period of industrialization that so profoundly reshaped landscapes throughout the Northeast, Vermont is part of the global marketplace, with thousands of residents taking advantage of the electronic revolution that allows the nearly instantaneous transfer of information and ideas. At the same time, the Vermont tradition of living close to the land has helped Vermonters to recognize that a healthy environment is a valued legacy which holds the key to achieving prosperity without pollution.

Despite most Vermonters' concern for a healthy environment and our state's special character, many parts of the state have experienced growth in a way which has sparked a debate about the very future of Vermont. A good deal has been written in recent years about sprawl's impact on a community's aesthetics and character, but both of these quality-of-life elements are hard, if not impossible, to measure.

Chart: Cars and trucks registered in VTOther effects of sprawl, however, are measurable, such as the longer commute from home to work and the resulting increase of pollutants released into the air we breathe. It is the impact of sprawl on Vermont's natural resources that we focus on in this opening section of Environment 1998.

Our more mobile society

Although Vermont cities and towns are generally still no farther apart than a wagon could travel between in a day's time, we traverse that distance in mere minutes in modern automobiles. Just 35 years ago, a trip from Burlington to Bellows Falls and back consumed an entire day. Today, we can travel the entire length of the state by car, from Massachusetts to Canada, in about three hours. Buses have become common sights on Vermont highways, especially during fall foliage, and many do a brisk winter business bringing skiers to and from Vermont's ski areas. Air and rail travel to Vermont has increasingly made the state a destination for vacationers in every season. The convenience and widespread availability of mechanized transportation has forever changed the way we think of distances. Easier access to and from Vermont has provided a boon for our state's economy and given Vermonters more freedom to explore their state and the world around them, but not without costs.

Motor vehicles now travel more than 6 billion miles annually in Vermont, double the amount traveled in 1972. The 464,300 cars and light trucks registered in Vermont account for many of these miles, of course (Figure 1). Many more are due to the visitors to our state. The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing estimates that Vermont's autumn colors in 1997 attracted more than 2 million people to our state, nearly four times the number of us who live here.

Due in large part to the arrival of the automobile, historic settlement patterns have been erased in many parts of the state, particularly in Chittenden County. Where villages once clearly ended and farms or forests began, now low-density single-family subdivisions increasingly reach into the countryside and commercial activities increasingly line our major roads - separating us ever farther from the natural environment.

Our state needs new businesses to prosper. However, by abandoning our traditional village settlements, dissecting farmland into 10-acre lots, and allowing businesses to line our roadways rather than encouraging them to locate in historic business districts and designated industrial parks, we weaken Vermont's character, making our state look a little more like everywhere else, and - maybe unknown to most Vermonters - harming our environment.

Chart: Because the transformation from a rural to a suburban community is an incremental one, so too are the environmental problems associated with such a transition. Stormwater run-off from driveways, parking lots, and roadways doesn't really amount to much early in the transition, but often grows to become a serious issue affecting surface water and groundwater quality. In rural Vermont communities, there is often adequate separation between water supplies and septic systems. The same cannot always be said for suburban communities where houses typically sit on narrow lots and public water and sewer may not be provided. Drinking water quality and quantity concerns arise where public water and sewer services are not available in suburban communities.

Human encroachment into and fragmentation of wildlife habitat can lead to the displacement of some wildlife species, to be replaced by species more tolerant of human presence (Figure 2). Suburbanization often leads to the disappearance of larger predators, such as osprey and bobcats. With their predators gone, raccoon and skunk populations usually increase rapidly, causing property damage and spreading diseases such as rabies. In addition to the more visible species, suburbanization can cause a decline in reptiles and amphibians unable to negotiate a landscape fragmented by roads, drainage ditches, curbs, and parking lots. Such effects often have unforeseen consequences that become magnified up the food chain.

Incidental to our increased use of automobiles is our growing use of cellular phones which require mountaintop towers to make long-distance connections. Because Vermont's landscape is so mountainous and cellular phones need communications towers within a near line-of-sight, statewide coverage for wireless communications is difficult. The first licensed cellular communications tower was built in Vermont in 1988, and the number of towers has grown to an estimated 100 today. As proposals for new towers proliferate around the state, opposition arises based on aesthetics and possible health risks associated with radiation exposure.

Our mobility is not restricted to land. The number of registered motorboats and personal watercraft has steadily increased, often resulting in conflicts with other recreational water users, prompting the Water Resources Board to restrict certain types of watercraft on some lakes. Recreational boating has played a significant role in spreading exotic species such as zebra mussels and water chestnut. Non-native species infestations (primarily Eurasian water milfoil) affect 1,700 acres of Vermont lakes and have profound effects on water quality and the ability of native aquatic species to survive.

Economic forces

By the mid-1800s, nearly 75 percent of the Vermont landscape was open, much of it for farming, and 25 percent was forested. The opposite is true today: approximately 75 percent of Vermont is forested and 25 percent remains cleared (Figure 3). This change is the result of both ecological succession and economic forces of the marketplace. The growth of agri-business and consolidated operations from what was once a landscape dominated by small hill farms in some ways typifies what has happened to forestry and recreation as well. In some parts of the state, the decline of family farming has made way for larger farming and dairying operations structured to realize improved economies of scale. Smaller farms often are unable to compete, and in more rapidly growing areas such as Chittenden County, land that once sustained small farms is now covered with homes, roads, stores, and parking lots.

Vermont is fortunate to have both diverse forest ecosystems and a strong conservation ethic to protect them. The future of our northern forests, sustainable forestry, and clear-cutting have been in the news in recent years. Approximately 2,813,600 acres, 60 percent of the state's forest lands, is under active forest management, a number which has steadily increased during the past two decades.

Through their elected officials, Vermonters have sought to reduce clear-cutting and prevent the use of herbicides as a timber management practice. With these changes to state law in place, the challenge remains to ensure that the right mix of tax policies, economic incentives, and market opportunities exist to protect and improve both Vermont's forests and the livelihood of loggers and others who live and work in Vermont's forests.Chart: Percentage of forested land in VT

The ski industry in recent years has wrestled with issues of water withdrawal for snowmaking, expansion, and the consolidation of ownership of many Vermont ski areas. Like family farming, ski area ownership is becoming more consolidated with single holding companies owning multiple ski areas both within and outside of Vermont. To improve and lengthen the ski season, many owners in Vermont have been working cooperatively with the Agency to tap into dependable sources of water for snowmaking that won't draw down mountain streams to unacceptable levels.

A new consensus for the importance of forging a common agenda of economics and the environment has emerged in recent years. It is clear that Vermont and Vermonters cannot afford separate agendas for the environmental and business communities. Environmental stewardship and economic sustainability are neither mutually exclusive nor antagonistic goals. In fact, the two go naturally together. As adversaries we run the risk of overlooking opportunities that exist for cooperation and partnership. Where business and the environment flourish together there can be the greatest good for all Vermonters.

The challenge

Many, if not most, Vermonters feel our state is changing in some ways for the better (diverse job opportunities, roads that move us quickly from one point to another) and in other ways for the worse (growth that occurs in an unplanned and environmentally harmful manner). How do we foster changes for the better and minimize those for the worse?

No one group or level of government has the answer. For Vermont to retain its character, individuals, communities, and the state all have a role. For example, we must consider changes in law and policy to encourage settlement in existing villages and designated growth centers; such a policy would touch on nearly all areas of government, including economic development, transportation, and natural resources. We must also develop a comprehensive environmental monitoring system which will allow us to track long-term indicators of environmental quality.

Legislators will have the opportunity to consider growth-related proposals in 1998. Specifically, lawmakers will have an opportunity to take up the so-called "Downtowns Bill," which would establish a process and range of incentives designed to encourage development within existing downtowns. Also, while the Legislature may amend Act 60, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, this new law should deter sprawl by easing pressure on local property taxes.

Other tools for preventing sprawl and building more sustainable communities already exist. Vermonters in some cities and towns use them everyday by committing hours to their communities' select boards, planning commissions, zoning boards, and conservation commissions, and by staying involved with the state's many planning and regulatory proceedings.

With Environment 1998, we again offer environmental indicators meant to provide insight into the quality of Vermont's natural resources. In addition, we recognize just a few of the many Vermont businesses, citizens, and organizations who have helped improve the health of our state's environment.

As always, the Agency of Natural Resources invites your questions and comments about this annual report.


The Not-So-Visible Landscape

As the visible landscape changes before us, the not-so-visible landscape in our subsurface also changes. Groundwater, a vast freshwater resource, is changing due to increasing land use activities. With development comes an increase in contamination from solid waste disposal, septic discharges, storm water run-off, leaking underground storage tanks, and hazardous waste sites. Roads, parking lots and rooftops increase run-off that picks up lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals.

Steamroller photoApart from quality, the quantity of groundwater is also affected by development. The demand for groundwater has resulted in interference among water sources. Flowing springs and existing wells can be depleted as newer wells are drilled nearby. Impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, also limit the infiltration of precipitation.

Groundwater exists almost everywhere under our landscape and connects us all. This connection is visible through the nourishment it provides the flora and fauna of our valleys and mountains. It provides the base flow that furnishes water to the streams and rivers that empty into our lakes. It is the resource that supplies water to wetlands. For thousands of Vermonters, it is their water supply through wells and springs for drinking, cooking, and washing.

Despite its great importance, many Vermonters misunderstand the nature of our state's groundwater - often by perceptions of mythical proportions. We imagine underground rivers and lakes, whereas groundwater is more likely found within bedrock cracks or between grains of soil. Such misconceptions can hinder the protection and management of Vermont's groundwater.

Expectations of our groundwater remain daunting. We depend upon groundwater to provide clean freshwater to our faucets and simultaneously discard wastewater from our drainpipes in a safe manner. Zoning ordinances, planning, and other land use mechanisms can help to protect our groundwater resources. In addition, identifying recharge areas to protect existing water systems helps protect water supplies, and the Agency of Natural Resources is mapping known recharge areas. The potential to pave over favorable aquifers for future use, however, continues until all groundwater characteristics are identified and mapped.