By Matt Breton This piece was first published in VTDigger
Last June, I wrote a commentary about how much I valued public land during the initial months of my Covid-19 furlough. Now, a year into this pandemic, having returned to work in the health care setting, the value of having access to that land has only increased to me and, I suspect, many other users.
I drove to the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge the other day to go snowshoe hare hunting and saw another long-established user group, snowmobilers, out enjoying their public lands too. I know the hikers I saw loading up and the skier breaking trail in the middle of nowhere value their access as well.
Making it through winter in Vermont usually takes a measure of getting outside. The benefits of fresh air this year feel doubly incredible, especially when many people are working from home and many types of indoor recreation are limited.
Across the state, public land ranging from small town forests and state wildlife management areas, to the Green Mountain National Forest and our National Wildlife Refuges, have been available to all Vermonters and visitors to our state, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, urban or rural, young or old. These places provide a refuge for all of us to take a break from our everyday challenges, even for just a few minutes, to take a deep breath, see the sunshine and hear a bird sing.
"As more people take to the outdoors, maintaining the integrity of what we have
while ensuring everyone has room to stretch their legs
means we need to conserve new public land in Vermont."
There is also economic benefit in public land. Numerous studies indicate proximity to public land such as a wildlife refuge or national forest increases home values and supports added jobs and economic activity, as well as ensures the benefits and cost-savings we receive in the form of cleaner water, flood resilience and other “ecosystem services” are maintained.
Much of Vermont’s $2.5 billion outdoor recreation industry, and many of the 34,000 jobs that directly depend on it, would not exist without widespread access to public land. Indeed, hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities that are heavily reliant on public land and reliable public access are the top contributors to this economic sector that makes up almost 5% of Vermont’s entire GDP.
Combine the value we already feel in our ownership of these places with President Biden’s call for 30% of our country’s lands and waters to be conserved by 2030, and strong investment is needed in our public lands.
Passage of the Great American Outdoor Act with full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is paid for by offshore oil and gas leases and not tax dollars, means today we have an excellent opportunity to enhance our public lands legacy for future generations of Vermonters to continue so many traditions — hiking, skiing, trapping, snowshoeing, hunting, birdwatching, fishing and snowmobiling, to name just a few. As more people take to the outdoors, maintaining the integrity of what we have while ensuring everyone has room to stretch their legs means we need to conserve new public land in Vermont.
Deciding which lands and how they are conserved can be a hard conversation. As more people learn about Leopold’s land ethic and as more resources become available to facilitate broader access to the outdoors and to steward our impacts, I believe we can all find common ground around the benefits of public land.
All I know is that access to nature is essential no matter who you are or where you live, and there are willing landowners who would love to see their land added to the public trust. The population is increasing and more people than ever are enjoying our outdoors, making these places even more necessary.
A little more than a century ago, our public lands helped see citizens through the influenza pandemic of 1918, and now these lands are assisting many of us through Covid-19. If my young niece Abby has a pandemic to get through decades from now, I hope she lives close to some publicly owned land. Those spaces will provide solace for her soul in trying times.
Let’s get to work saving a few more places for her, and others, to go.
Matt Breton is an avid hunter/fisher/forager, a board member of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and president of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Conservation Group.