Landmark history: Can Vt.'s 'green' past save its future?
By Kevin O'Connor
STAFF WRITER | November 18,2012
Vermont State Archives Photo
The 1958 opening of the first six miles of Vermont's Interstate 91, in Guilford, ushered in the challenge of balancing progress with preservation.
Vermont boasts to being the first state to ban billboards (in 1968) and the last to welcome Walmart (in 1995). But researching their new history of environmental activism in the Green Mountains, Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey realized their work was itself a milestone.
No such book, the co-authors discovered, has ever been published before.
“It's pretty surprising this is unique,” Courtney says. “In Vermont, you'd suspect there would be several.”
The state has inspired generations of environmental scribes, be it the 19th-century visiting naturalist Henry David Thoreau, 20th-century pastoral poet Robert Frost or present-day climate-change prophet Bill McKibben.
But a volume dedicated specifically to the pursuit and challenges of preserving its landscape? Courtney and Zencey's just-released “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State” is breaking new ground — both by looking back and aiming to forge a path forward.
“This is a tale of environmental victories, defeats and, perhaps most significantly, collaborations and compromises that have put Vermont at the forefront of the national environmental movement,” Tom Slayton, editor-emeritus of Vermont Life magazine, writes in the foreword.
The 174-page, $35 trade paperback — produced by the Vermont Natural Resources Council through Thistle Hill Publications of North Pomfret — skips back centuries to such worldly pioneers as Woodstock native George Perkins Marsh, author of 1864's “Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action,” the first book to document the nation's need for conservation.
But Courtney and Zencey focus on the past five decades, starting in 1958 with “an important moment in the state's environmental history — though it's doubtful that any of the participants would have described what they were doing in those terms”: Opening Vermont's first six miles of interstate highway.
“Many of the hallmarks of modern life — television, telephones, even electricity — were not yet fully present in the state,” the co-authors write. “With the arrival of the interstate that was about to change very quickly, for the world that held Vermont in a remote and distant corner had suddenly become much smaller.”
Yet much bigger in its potential for development. The interstate rolled in just as the head of IBM decided to build an Essex Junction factory (now Vermont's largest private employer) to enjoy ready access to nearby ski slopes and his favorite sport.
That's when everything began to snowball.
Past as prologue
In 1960, Vermonters outnumbered cows for the first time in the U.S. Census. In 1962, they elected Philip Hoff their first modern-day Democratic governor, who in turn planted the idea of land-use planning. But such talk had yet to turn into action when Hoff's successor, Gov. Deane Davis, learned of a proposal at the end of the decade to build 1,400 vacation homes in the ski town of Stratton, then population 104.
Traveling nearby to tour similar chalets, Davis saw raw sewage bubbling from the ground — spurring adoption in 1970 of the state's landmark Act 250 land-use law.
Courtney — who just retired as VNRC executive director to head the nonprofit's Legacy Project — and Zencey — a fellow at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics — devote much of their book to the continuing debate over the successes and shortfalls of Act 250.
“It went against a long-standing tradition in Vermont, the idea that the foundation of civil freedom is the right every Vermonter has to use his or her own land as he or she sees fit,” the Montpelier residents write. “But Act 250 could equally be described as counterrevolutionary, since it sought to limit the harms and damage of the revolutionary change that had been loosed on the people and landscape of the state.”
“Critics say the law imposes front-end design costs and then additional construction costs on the developer,” they continue. “Exactly, proponents say: these costs reflect a necessary accommodation of private interest to public good.”
Courtney conceived the book to celebrate the VNRC's 50th anniversary next year. To turn the concept into reality, she teamed with Zencey, a nationally best-selling author whose own history ranges from his 1995 novel “Panama” to his new nonfiction release “The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy.”
“Greening Vermont” reflects a wide spectrum of environmental events — including the opening and potential closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, the continuing challenge of protecting Lake Champlain, and the drizzly night in 1982 when Vermont Republicans avoided a state appearance by President Ronald Reagan's development-happy secretary of the interior, James Watt.
“Congressman James Jeffords had sent regrets, saying he'd be unavoidably detained in Florida,” the book notes. “U.S. Sen. Robert Stafford couldn't make it because he was planning a European tour. Gov. Richard Snelling had another meeting he had to attend. Secretary of State (and future governor) James Douglas was unapologetically blunt, saying that an evening at home with his family appealed to him more.”
Back to the future
The book profiles other state leaders ranging from the late banker and outdoorsman Arthur Gibb, chairman of the state commission that proposed Act 250, to Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before her 1996 death from brain cancer at age 49.
“Vermont certainly is rich with caring, active individuals who've made significant contributions,” Courtney says in an interview. “I regret that we didn't have room to acknowledge everyone.”
But so much, she knows, remains to be written. Vermonters continue to disagree over Act 250 four decades after its creators aimed to ensure, in their words, “development without destruction.” Yet that debate seems microscopic compared to the current threat of global warming.
“We've been able to manage growth to protect our farm and forest land and water resources,” Courtney says, “but we can't fix the issues of climate change and energy security by ourselves.”
Bill McKibben outlines the twofold challenge in the book's afterword: “One is to keep building a resilient Vermont, one prepared for a planet emerging from the stability of the Holocene to the chaotic turbulence of whatever comes next,” he writes. “The other half of the equation, even harder, is that in self-defense Vermont has to help take the lead in getting the whole planet off the fossil fuels that cause climate change.”
McKibben acknowledges that “given Vermont's tiny size, that seems laughable.” But Courtney and Zencey see a way for the state to move forward: Go back and find guidance in history — specifically, to grow more food on local land and glean more renewable energy from wind and water.
“How do you foster the shared understanding we need if we're to build smarter and better than the way we've built before?” they write. “One good answer: you share information and knowledge and nurture ecological understanding among the general public. Vermonters, long used to thinking for themselves at town meetings, know that good thinking requires good information.”
As the book quotes Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont: “We're not in favor of pickling Vermont. On the other hand, we've got to find ways to grow that reinforce what's important about our place. It's essential that we are good stewards.”
Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey will speak about and sign their new book “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State,” on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at Manchester's Northshire Bookstore.