Case Studies

Vermont Land Trust – Targeted Acquisitions for Wildlife and Ecosystems

The Vermont Land Trust (VLT) conserves working farms, forests, and natural spaces to protect the rural character and aesthetic values of the state. The Green Mountain State has come a long way since the days of intensive forestry in the early 1800s. In the early settlement period after the French and Indian War Burlington Vermont was one of the nation’s most populous cities, and settlers conducted intensive timber harvests, continuous cropping, and un-rotated grazing which quickly caused environmental impacts. In 1847 Vermont Congressman George Perkins Marsh’s speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County called for a new approach to environmental stewardship, emphasizing the negative effects of intensive use practices and their impact on water and soil quality. Thus began an early environmental consciousness that began a conservation ethic that continues to this day. The Vermont Historical Society relates that the state began to preserve forests and plant trees in 1910 with the formation of the Green Mountain Club (GMC). Founder James P. Taylor believed connecting people with nature would help communicate the value of natural spaces, a belief that led to the construction of the Long Trail, a hiking trail routing through Vermont’s now famous fields, woodlands, and mountain ranges.

Value of the land and habitat

While environmental protection and restoration efforts have been underway in Vermont for centuries, development continued to threaten open spaces and recreational values.  To respond to these pressures, the Vermont Land Trust was formed. Since 1977, VLT has successfully conserved more than 1,775 parcels of land covering more than 535,000 acres – about eight percent of the private, undeveloped land in the state. These lands include more than 775 working farms, hundreds of thousands of acres of productive forestland, and numerous parcels of community land. In addition to providing social and economic values, these lands protect a diversity of wetlands, unusual natural communities, rare species, and wildlife and their important habitats.

Conservation concerns

While Vermont’s landscape reflects a strong conservation ethic, the aesthetic values this legacy yields also bring development pressures. Growing populations throughout the region put increasing demand on open spaces and may present use conflicts. Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that over the past few decades, much of the wildlife species in the region that were once rare or missing have returned in larger numbers, in part due to the fact that the state has been significantly reforested, with more than 70% cover in modern times compared to a low of 40% in the 1840s.  Despite this significant improvement in land cover that can offer habitat to native species, threats still remain, and a significant number of wildlife species still need help to avoid threats such as habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, invasive exotic species, and even natural events that can negatively impact animal populations.  By working with land owners and wildlife experts, VLT is playing an important role in protecting the critical habitats and migration corridors species need to survive and thrive.

What’s being done and how

Vermont Land Trust exists so that current and future generations are deeply connected to the land and benefit from its deliberate protection and responsible stewardship. Specifically,

  1. Working farms, forests, community lands, and associated natural systems are conserved, and contribute to the cultural, economic, and ecological vitality of local communities.
  2. Land is accessible to the public, and working landscapes are affordable and available.
  3. Land conservation and stewardship manifest an understanding of the changing nature of environmental, economic, and societal conditions.
  4. Land stewardship reflects responsible and balanced care for the ecological integrity, cultural heritage, and economic productivity of conserved properties.

These guiding principles, as well as close working relationships with state biologists and stakeholders in the community have led this conservation organization to support wildlife enhancement projects such as habitat corridor acquisition prioritization. Targeted acquisitions for wildlife and ecosystems can improve the health of migratory species whose behaviors require various landscapes as well as enable them to shift their ranges as conditions change.

Current implementation status

The Vermont Land Trust executed a targeted 163 acre land acquisition to help struggling black bears move between the Green Mountain and Taconic ranges.  While this land donation did not cover the migration corridor completely, working to connect these vast open spaces in Vermont and New York enhances the ability of bears to move from their home ranges to feeding habitat, and increases connectivity for a variety of wildlife. “We’re doing a lot of thinking about how conservation can contribute to sustaining biological diversity as climate change advances,” says Liz Thompson, VLT’s director of conservation science. In addition to working to identify opportunities to connect migration pathways, the land trust also provides pollinator resources and native planting guides and invasive species control identification and eradication resources to help enhance ecological resilience throughout the region.

Engaging Stakeholders

To meet varying conservation objectives and stakeholder needs, the Vermont Land Trust supports flexible conservation easements that protect agriculture, forestry, recreation, natural resources, or specific ecological features. For example, VLT has established “ecological protection zones” within easements to enhance protection levels of especially significant systems such as small vernal pools or large expansive wetlands. When developing an easement on forestland that contains a vernal pool, VLT recommends a 100-foot no-cut area around each pool and an additional 500-foot area where cutting will be light. By working with land owners to tailor easement language to reflect ecological objectives, both wildlife and community members can benefit from more needs-responsive management practices.  A 30-year record of successful stewardship and state-wide partnerships have built trust and enabled engagement throughout the community.

Lessons Learned

Work with partners to identify needs. Conversation projects can address numerous objectives, offering benefits which are often compatible with landowner values and long-term management goals. Understanding the interests and objectives of your community can enable more needs-responsive planning that yields gains for people and the environment.