CHAPTER 6: COMMISSIONS WORK IN A LARGER CONTEXT

Table of Contents

As long as conservation commission projects fall reasonably within the powers and duties outlined in Vermont Statute, commissions have a wide latitude to take on a variety of meaningful projects in town life. Naturally, certain topics will appeal to the people who make up the commission based on their interests and priorities. It is also normal that certain topics will be more relevant to some towns than others.

Once the conservation commission has developed a strong sense of purpose and understands how to work collaboratively, it can tackle a variety of different projects. However, some commissions have trouble figuring out where to start. The following sections suggest a rough sequence of how the conservation commission can plug into different aspects of conservation. This order might not always be the most appropriate sequence but grounding the conservation commission in several of these first elements will improve their ability to tackle later ones. Also see 4-1 Mission Statement, 4-2 Short Term Planning & 4-3 Long-Range Planning

6-1: Understanding the Municipal Scene

As mentioned in earlier chapters, the conservation commission’s first task is to understand how the municipality works. There are several established activities that towns regularly engage in. As such, the conservation commission does not necessarily need to brainstorm new project ideas—it can plug into existing, meaningful municipal projects. The first, and one of the most impactful, municipal project is the town plan.

The Town Plan

The town plan (for those communities that choose to plan) is the visioning document for the town. It speaks to the “balancing act” the town seeks in the various competing values the town is planning for. The plan is a document, generally written by the planning commission with input from townspeople and a variety of other municipal boards. It must be in conformance with the Regional Plan and that is voted on by the full Regional Planning Commission responsible for that town and approved by the Department of Housing and Community and Community Development (DHCD) at the Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD) every eight years. It presents conservation commissions with an established avenue to ensure that their interests are represented in each edition of the town plan. Although town plan rewrites are generally coordinated by the planning commission, conservation commissions often write or contribute to various chapters.

Plainfield Town Plan Update: Plainfield recently updated their town plan. The new version was adopted in February, 2014. The updated plan added a significant amount of conservation language throughout the document. Plainfield’s vision statement directs the town to foster appreciation for Plainfield’s natural resources. To ensure this goal, in addition to enhancing and strengthening the conservation language in the chapter on natural resources, critical conservation-oriented strategies and objectives were added to other chapters. The new strategies, most of which have a 1-3 year priority, impact protection of farmland and important natural resource areas, energy usage, land use planning, development regulations, storm water planning, and habitat connectivity. In an effort to incorporate these additions into community awareness and community values, the Conservation Commission continues to reach out to the public through public forums, the online Front Porch Forum, social media, and at town farmer’s markets. By integrating conservation strategies in the town plan and increasing public support of these efforts, Plainfield hopes to maintain and protect their town’s natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations. Read More

Because the town plan is focused on planning for the future, it is therefore the most appropriate avenue for describing resources of interest in town and strategizing ways to protect those resources into the future. This generally takes shape as a written narrative and related maps in the town plan. Many conservation commissions help write the “Natural Resources” chapter; however, because conservation issues cross into many other topics, conservation commissions can provide input to other sections of the town plan, such as the Transportation, Land Use and Flood Resilience chapters. A good town plan approaches resources from a systems perspective, thinking about how each issue intersects with other related topics. Conservation commissions should learn when the next town plan update will occur, understand the scope of the rewrite (sometimes towns will tackle only a few sections), and make a concerted effort to be included. This must be a high priority because it may be the only opportunity for eight years!

Note that there is an increasing trend toward brevity in town plans across the state to make them more readable and accessible. This means that the full spectrum of resource values may not be adequately captured in the narrative. With this trend it is even more important that goals, policies, and objectives in the plan clearly represent next steps for the commission and the most important policies to protect natural resources.

See Section on JAM Golf Supreme Court decision to emphasize need for clarity and mapped data clearly indicating what natural resources are important for the town’s planning and regulation.

Local Hazard Mitigation Plans

Another type of planning that towns engage in is Local Hazard Mitigation. Common hazards facing Vermont communities include floods, winter storms, tropical storms, high winds, and structural fires. Landslides, wildfires, hazardous material spills, and water supply contamination events are among the many other potential hazards that communities may encounter. The process of creating a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan helps communities identifies the most likely hazards for the community, focuses resources on mitigating the greatest risks, and educates people about hazards in town. Importantly, local governments with a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are eligible for a variety of federal funds. Having an approved hazard mitigation plan is one of the requirements to qualify for post-disaster funding through FEMA’s Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund (ERAF). Conservation commissions can play an important role in this process, as it intersects with many other traditional conservation topics. For example, the commission could create a mapped overlay of riparian buffer protections that mitigate flood risk. See the website for Vermont Emergency Management – Local Hazard Mitigation Plan & Planning Resources page

Renewable Energy Siting

In 2016, Act 174 was passed, establishing a new set of municipal and energy planning standards. Towns with an “Enhanced Energy Plan” (generally as a chapter or appendix to the town plan) that meet the new Act 174 standards are granted greater consideration in the siting process for renewable energy generation. The Public Utility Commission (formerly known as the Public Service Board), which regulates energy projects, will grant towns “substantial deference” in the renewable energy siting process, but only for towns that undertake this extra planning step. In other words, by creating an Enhanced Energy Plan, towns can have a greater say in where energy projects, like wind and solar, should and should not be sited. This is a complicated topic with many important details, and it exceeds the scope of this Handbook. However, Regional Planning Commissions are available to provide technical assistance to towns on this topic. While this topic may fall primarily under the purview of a different town organization (such as an Energy Committee), conservation commissions may wish to engage in this process to advocate for natural resources protections within the energy siting process.

Buildout Analysis in Calais by CVRPC: Central Vermont RPC helped Calais do a GIS Buildout analysis to determine the maximum number of new building units that could hypothetically be placed in Calais given current regulations as well as under another scenario. This project helped the town look at its zoning standards and get a sense of where new development was being guided, enabling them to better understand current regulations and changes that might be made to better protect natural resources. Within the context of this hypothetical future, the GIS model limited development in deer yards, wetlands, steep slopes, and floodplains and then assessed how many units could be placed there and across all zoning districts. The resulting map is often referred to as “the measles map” which represents a full buildout of the town, with every possible existing lot divided as much as regs will allow, and new buildings “placed” within each of these new parcels. Read More

Although conservation commission members may think of themselves at home in the woods or wetlands, there are important conservation opportunities in downtowns, neighborhoods, and commercial districts. One important strategy for protecting natural resources is to engage in making your town center green, livable, sustainable, and a vibrant place to live. This will encourage people to live closer to public services in denser developments that are less land-intensive and are common drivers of development of natural resources.

One framework for a making your town greener is to replace “gray” infrastructure—concrete, stone, brick, pavement—with “green infrastructure,” such as trees, shrubs, pollinator gardens, and rain gardens. Green infrastructure provides a host of benefits for people and nature, including:

  • Air quality improvements;
  • Increased shade, reducing urban heat effect;
  • Reduced stormwater runoff into waterways;
  • Filtration of pollutants before they reach waterways;
  • Erosion control;
  • Increases in property values;
  • Habitat for wildlife such as birds and pollinating insects.

Another strategy is to focus efforts on making your town more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. Towns with bike lanes, bike racks, and safe avenues for cyclists and pedestrians will encourage people to conduct more of their transit by bike or foot, which reduces pollution and road congestion. Additionally, “pocket parks” or allowing for businesses to use sidewalk space or remove a parking space for additional outdoor seating can be worthwhile in making downtowns more livable and pedestrian friendly.

A Place in Between – Collaboration for a Healthy Landscape between the Adirondacks and Green Mountains: A Place in Between is a collaborative effort through the Staying Connected Initiative and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The goal was to create a platform from which all the environmentally-focused organizations within a particular geographic boundary (the region between the Green Mountains and Adirondacks) could visualize the work of all others, determine whether there was overlap of goals and strategies between groups, look for gaps in geography and focus, and begin a conversation about collaboration in efforts to reach landowners and other groups within the region. The idea for this project stemmed from the realization that numerous organizations, despite having differing interests and immediate goals, are ultimately protecting the same landscapes and conducting outreach to the same individuals–and yet they aren’t necessarily fully aware of the work of all the other organizations. Thus, partnerships between these organizations are crucial to efficiently conserving or maintaining a healthy landscape. The Place in Between initiative focuses on a region in Rutland and Addison County in Vermont and in Washington County in New York. This region, labeled as the ‘Adirondacks-Southern Green Mountains Linkage’ by the Staying Connected Initiative, is especially important ecologically, because it is one of the few remaining unfragmented areas of forest habitat between the two mountain ranges. Read More

Cultural opportunities also play a major role in making a community vibrant and livable. As such, the conservation commission might choose to engage in cultural history and preserving historic sites and buildings. For some residents, conserved historical and cultural features help foster a deep sense of connection to a community and its history. 

Assistance for the Municipal Scene

  • Vermont’s eleven Regional Planning Commissions each work with a geographically bound service region, and can provide assistance on a variety of topics, ranging from GIS mapping to transportation planning to assistance with a variety of other aspects of fulfilling state and local planning goals. See the Vermont Association of Planning & Development Agencies
  • Vermont League of Cities & Towns can provide additional resources. Founded in 1967, this nonprofit, nonpartisan organization exists to serve and strengthen Vermont local government.

6-2: Plugging into the Larger Conservation Scene

Beyond engaging in existing, ongoing municipal projects, conservation commissions can become part of a larger conservation scene in Vermont. Below are two suggestions for how to begin that process.

Joining the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions (AVCC)

The Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions serves as a gateway to a broad community of Vermonters, volunteers, and professionals working across the state and region. Although membership in AVCC is not required of conservation commissions, it is encouraged and provides several benefits to member towns, including:

  • Access to an active 600-member listserv, where announcements, resources, and opportunities are regularly shared; vtconservation@googlegroups.com
  • Eligibility for the AVCC Tiny Grant Program;
  • Discounted access to the AVCC annual Conservation Summit;
  • An online library of “Success Stories” from other conservation commissions highlighting projects and the elements that made those projects successful.

Beyond these direct member benefits, the AVCC exists to help conservation commissions develop capacity and access the resources and knowledge it needs to succeed and help form additional commissions across the state.

Land Conservation

Conservation commissions have the authority to engage in land conservation on behalf of the municipality under its powers and duties listed in Vermont statute. This can be conducted through outright purchase of the property and its various interests (also known as “fee simple acquisition”); alternatively, the town can accept donation of or purchase a particular interest in the property, such as the development rights. This legal arrangement is called a conservation easement, where the municipality holds legal rights to a particular interest (such as development rights) in the property without owning the property itself.

Brushwood Community Forest: The Brushwood Community Forest is a 1,059-acre municipal woodland owned by the town of West Fairlee, Vermont.

Brushwood strategically adjoins the 1,400-acre Fairlee Municipal Forest. (A few hundred acres of Brushwood actually lie within the town of Fairlee.) Together, these two town forests are part of one of the last significant blocks of forestland in the ecologically significant Upper Connecticut River Valley. The area in and around Brushwood has linked people to the landscape for generations through a history of private forest stewardship, recreation, and environmental education. Read More

Some towns have even created their own land trusts, including Duxbury, Charlotte, Greensboro, Mount Holly, and South Hero, among others. Starting a local land trust should be done carefully as the organization has a responsibility to steward the easements it holds in perpetuity. That’s a high bar for a local organization and should only be tried if existing regional or statewide land trusts are inadequate for the local need.

Many conservation commissions are very interested in land conservation because it is a proven, permanent way to protect valuable natural resources; however, land conservation is made much easier for municipalities through partnerships with other conservation organizations in the State. While land conservation can be undertaken by the town with the conservation commission as a major player, there are professional organizations such as land trusts of government agencies that specialize in these kinds of land deals and transactions. Many land trusts specialize in a particular geographic region (such as the Upper Valley Land Trust) or specialize in a particular kind of conservation project (such as town forest acquisition or farmland protection). The AVCC can help match towns to an appropriate conservation partner with experience in the type of project the town is interested in conserving. For more information on land conservation, see Chapter 7 How to pay for Conservation.

6-3: Understanding the Science & Taking Inventory

Over time, as your conservation commission builds credibility within municipal government, the commission may be called upon to weigh in on science and land management topics. As such, commissioners should do their best to stay abreast of current scientific topics. Attending conferences, webinars, and field walks are great ways for commissioners to increase their knowledge. Some commissions include members with professional experience in science or land management and can lean on these members to help educate the remaining commissioners; however, there are times when bringing in an outside expert, such as a consultant or agency professional, has its benefits. One of these times is during a Natural Resources Inventory.

Natural Resources Inventory & Mapping

As the enabling statute indicates, conservation commission may undertake inventory and assessment of the town’s natural resources. A natural resources inventory, simply put, is a study of any noteworthy natural resources over a given area. Field-based inventory data, particularly natural community data, is the most appropriate scale of data to use in town planning. Resources commonly inventoried include:

  • Wetlands and vernal pools;
  • Streams, rivers, and ponds;
  • Natural communities;
  • Rare, threatened, endangered, and uncommon species;
  • Special wildlife habitats (mast stands, deer wintering areas, grassland bird habitat, etc.);
  • Habitat blocks;
  • Wildlife corridors;
  • Wells, groundwater, and springs.

Conservation commissions may undertake the inventory independently if they have sufficient in-house expertise. Be sure to think about town politics and how final results may be received and used when the inventory is completed. For some towns, local experts can serve as a trusted voice. While in other towns it can be easier for an outside voice. It is more common to hire a consultant who can provide expertise on a variety of natural resources and complete the inventory work more rapidly. If the inventory is designed to cover most or all the town, a consultant might charge between $15,000 and $20,000. A smaller project, such as inventory of a town forest or another piece of town-owned land might cost around $5,000. These costs can vary, depending on the acreage, complexity of the project, and consultant rates. See Chapter 7 How to pay for Conservation for ideas on funding inventories and the need for local match.

Dummerston Biodiversity Inventory Report: The Dummerston Biodiversity Inventory Report was fueled by a partnership between the Dummerston Conservation Commission and the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. This report was inspired by the Vermont Biodiversity Project, which suggests that inventories be carried out on a community/town scale. Using the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife’s document “Conserving Vermont’s Natural Heritage” as a guideline, these two organizations came together to develop a conservation plan that would revolve around the areas in Dummerston of greatest ecological importance. For approximately three years, project partners and volunteers conducted surveys, sought out preexisting knowledge, and used GIS mapping technology to evaluate the biodiversity present in town. Riparian corridors, vernal pools, and deer wintering areas represent just a few types of essential habitat chronicled through the study. After documenting, summarizing, and synthesizing the inventory’s findings, the groups were able to manifest a reliable and extensive report that can be referenced by conservation commission members and citizens to inform future decisions. Read More

Most modern natural resources inventories include maps made using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, although conservation commissions can also make maps using various online mapping platforms, such as BioFinder and the Agency of Natural Resource’s Atlas. A paid consultant will usually gather existing GIS data and add any new data collected from the inventory’s field work. If your town decides to hire a consultant for an inventory, the conservation commission should still play an important role in connecting the consultant to landowners. In the town of Richmond, the conservation commission sent out postcards to landowners requesting that they permit the consultant to visit their property for the natural resources inventory. With an actively involved conservation commission, natural resources inventories are more likely to be used rather than forgotten on a bookshelf.

Planning for the intended uses of inventory before it begins can be an important first step. In Hinesburg, a Natural Resource Inventory Committee was formed to brainstorm possible uses first and then they drafted the Request for Proposals. This committee was chaired by a conservation commission member but included representation of the Selectboard, trails committee and local land trust. It is also important to plan the public outreach after the inventory is complete to be sure everyone in town is aware of the results and that those results are translated into maps and language that residents can understand. Often the consultant will do one or two presentations as part of the inventory contract, but the commission could also set up additional events where the public has other opportunities to engage in the material and perhaps engage other speakers that can distill the information into more easily understood language.

Apart from natural resources, conservation commissions may also undertake inventory of other resources, such as cultural or historic resources.

Mapping for Regulatory Review

Once a town has natural resources inventory data in hand, it can use the data to inform its land-use planning. For example, the Town of Jericho used its natural resources inventory data as the basis for a Natural Resources Overlay District. In their Overlay District, “Primary Conservation Areas” were established around areas including rare, threatened, & endangered species, vernal pools, forested riparian areas, and upland natural communities. “Secondary Conservation Areas” were established for slightly less sensitive or less precisely-mapped (but nevertheless important) resources, including ledge/cliff/talus habitats, wildlife road crossings, and high elevation forest blocks. Importantly, Jericho exempted wildlife road crossings falling within the Commercial District, with an eye towards enhancing protections in the rural, outlying parts of town, while encouraging growth within commercial areas. Another example is Charlotte’s Significant Wildlife Habitat map that the commission uses for development review.

Charlotte Significant Wildlife Map and Database: In 2008, the Charlotte Conservation Commission in partnership with Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the University of Vermont put together a map and database that provides information about local natural resources for the town. This included significant wildlife habitat, exemplary natural communities, rare species and characteristic landscape features of the area. The purpose of the map is to provide an advisory reference for town planning as well as to put scientific information in the hands of residents. The partners aimed to provide science-based information to the public that was easy to understand, as well as to adopt State methodology and structure for assessing natural communities. Read More

This system of interpreting inventory data helped create a valuable land-use planning tool that protects natural resources through local regulation, but one with consideration for which resources merit the highest level of protection and which other resources still warrant protection, but with more flexibility.

Assistance for Understanding Science

•             The Community Wildlife Program at Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department provides assistance to all Vermont towns. Program staff keep tabs on the latest in conservation science and help integrate that information into municipal efforts to protect wildlife, habitat, and the most important lands and waters in Vermont. Whether you are drafting a new town plan, seeking a project partner, or looking to level up your conservation planning, the Community Wildlife Program is available to help.

•             County Foresters, who are employed by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, provide services and guidance to communities on a variety of forestry related topics. Most assist municipalities with town forest management. County Foresters are often engaged in forest health issues outreach and may work with schools, planning commissions, conservation commissions and watershed organizations on training, demonstrations, community service events, or natural resource projects.

•             The Rivers Program at Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation assists towns with understanding river science and planning, making their communities more flood resilient, and navigating permit processes.

•             The Wetlands Program at Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation is available to assist towns with understanding wetland science, identifying strategies for wetland protection, and navigating permit processes.

•             Basin Planners at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation draft “Basin Plans” that identify waterways in need of restoration and help connect communities with other partners to improve water quality within their watershed.

•             The Urban and Community Forestry Program at the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation assists communities with creating and stewarding healthy urban forests and street trees.

6-4: Engaging in Land-Use Planning

With an understanding of municipal planning, the conservation community, and the underlying science, conservation commissions are well-positioned to engage in land use planning thoughtfully and productively. What is land-use planning? Land use is how we manage and use our ecosystems and lands for different benefits. Planning for land use is how we take those different uses into consideration and choose appropriate actions for land in the future. We may be tasked with deciding how to manage a particular property, such as a town forest. Yet land use planning goes beyond an individual parcel – it asks us to look at broader geographies and decide how to balance different uses across many different places, through time. 

Tiered Ecological Communities Map – From Science to Planning: The Forests, Wildlife, and Communities Project is a collaboration among the Mad River Valley Planning District, local and state conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and representatives in the towns in the Mad River Valley. The Forests, Wildlife, and Communities Project is involved in various efforts throughout the Mad River Valley which seek to implement a regional and landscape level approach to wildlife and forestland conservation through public and community involvement. One of the projects associated with the Forests, Wildlife, and Communities Project, involved the creation of tiered ecological community maps for the Mad River Valley area. These maps were created using the information provided from natural resource inventories conducted by Arrowwood Environmental in the towns of Fayston, Waitsfield, and Warren. The inventories included information on wildlife habitats, upland natural communities, wetlands, vernal pools, contiguous habitat, corridors, and rare elements present in these three towns. Read More

Land-Use Planning

Inventory and town planning segue into deeper topics of how land should be used within town. The art of land-use planning is steering a community into the future while balancing the differing, and potentially competing, ideas about what types of land use are appropriate in the different parts of town. Many conservation commission members have ideas about what types of land use should be encouraged or discouraged and becoming a part of municipal government is a great opportunity to become involved in a variety of land use planning topics. Conservation commissions can engage in land use planning through several important processes.  See the Municipal Planning Manual by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. See Mapping Vermont’s Natural Heritage, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s guide to using BioFinder for land use planning

Burke Natural Resources Overlay District: The creation of the Burke Natural Resources Overlay District stemmed from the purchase of a ski area in Burke, VT. This purchase caused great concern for the scenic beauty of Burke’s mountains due to the lack of zoning regulations to protect the these mountain tops from heavy development. In order to protect the scenic beauty of Burke and to conserve its mountain tops, the Scenic and Conservation Overlay district was created. The overlay district was created through many hearings with .. Read More

Forest Integrity Planning under Act 171

Act 171 was passed by the Vermont legislature in 2016, requiring town plans to identify forest blocks and habitat connectors and to plan for development to minimize the effects of forest fragmentation. Any town plan adopted after January 1, 2018, is required to identify, map, and plan for these features on the landscape. Many conservation commissions take a leading or supporting role (to the planning Commission) in adding these provisions to the town plan (either as an amendment, or as part of periodic update required every eight years). In addition to new narratives defining and describing the importance of forest blocks, habitat connectors and the threats of fragmentation, Act 171-compliant plans should also include implementation steps to protect those resources from fragmentation, as well as map(s) indicating where the most important forest blocks and habitat connectors are in town. See Agency of Natural Resources’ Act 171 Guidance document.

Implementing the Town Plan

Once your commission has laid out the vision for your town in the plan, you will need to think about how to implement the vision that has been crafted. There are many “tools,” or approaches, available to help towns achieve their visions as laid out in the plan. Many of these are what are known as “non-regulatory” tools, in other words, voluntary programs that individuals such as landowners or renters or businesses can undertake. Examples of non-regulatory tools include incentive programs, like the Use Value Appraisal Program; educating landowners about Best Management Practices on forestry or agricultural lands; encouraging willing landowners to conserve their land with a land trust or other qualified entity. These are often useful steps for any town – every community can benefit from an elevated awareness about natural and cultural resources, and the voluntary steps people can take to protect them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are what are known as “regulatory tools,” things like zoning and subdivision bylaws, wetland regulations, and municipal ordinances. These tools are effective ways to plan for development and steer projects away from sensitive parts of the landscape. They can be especially effective in communities that experience high development pressures. In the end, many towns craft a unique “toolkit,” comprised of a range of both regulatory and non-regulatory tools, to achieve their visions. Figuring out which tools are viable and effective in your community is part of the work of the conservation commission. See the Municipal Planning Manual by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Land Management and Stewardship

Many conservation commissions are responsible for stewardship and management of town-owned land, including but not limited to parks, trails, and town forests. These properties, particularly town forests, are usually managed to accommodate multiple uses, including forestry, recreation, wildlife habitat, water quality, education, and cultural use. Managers and stewards of municipal lands must balance these multiple uses, some of which may be at odds with each other. A good rule of thumb is to identify sensitive natural resources and steer more active town forest uses away from those sensitive areas. For example, some towns restrict trail development or restrict seasonal use in sensitive wildlife habitat, such as deer wintering areas. For more information on managing multiple uses in a town forest, reference The Vermont Town Forest Stewardship Guide: A Community Users’ Manual for Town Forests, a publication of the Northern Forest Alliance.

Developing a Wilderness Trail in our Town Forest: A 1.6 mile Wilderness Trail was completed in a remote corner of Bradford’s conserved Wrights MT/Devil’s Den Town Forest that is managed by the Bradford Conservation Commission. Using funds from AVCC’s Tiny Grant Program that was matched with money from the Friends of Wrights MT Fund, Upper Valley Trails Alliance was contracted to complete the work. Under the direction of UVTA staff, four trail crews in UVTA’s High School Summer Odyssey Program, two crews from Dartmouth College’s Tuck Program and one community service crew from Hypertherm, Inc completed the trail with final blazing and signage completed by Bradford Conservation Commission members. Read More

Managing access to town owned lands is another responsibility conservation commissions may take on, spanning from town forests to parks and waterway accesses. Establishing a formal parking area with a kiosk for displaying maps and important information can help transform municipal land into an inviting place for residents and visitors. These facilities require maintenance, but having clean, well-maintained access areas will do wonders for your image and reputation among users of municipal lands.

Montpelier Invasive Species Control and Education Project: Park lands in North Branch River Park were acquired with significant invasive species that needed control. It was proposed to create an interpretive trail on invasive species management, including signage with explanations of the invasive species and how they are being controlled. Read More

Many conservation commissions find it helpful—or essential—to create management plans for municipal lands. These documents codify the intended goals and purposes for the land, highlight important natural and cultural resources, and lay out a structured plan for how the town will steward the land and its resources into the future. Management plans should address the land’s current and potential status, identify the community’s purposes and goals, and schedule any approved management activities—spelling out what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will happen. The process of creating a management plan should include a diverse group of stakeholders. For example, the Andrews Community Forest in Richmond, Vermont, has a management plan that focuses on forestry and ecological management to facilitate holistic management of the parcel. Management plans are critically important!

Managing land now requires addressing invasives species. Invasive species are non-native organisms that outcompete and displace native plants and animals. Considered by ecologists one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, some invasive species are widespread across Vermont while others are just beginning to gain a foothold in the state. The conservation commission is a logical group to spearhead efforts to prevent the establishment and spread of invasives species. Worthwhile efforts to respond to invasives species include educating people about prohibitions on transporting firewood, (which can carry invasive pests), removing invasive species on town lands, and encouraging landowners to replace invasive ornamental plantings with native species.

For example, the Guilford Conservation Commission focused its efforts on responding to the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive insect pest whose damage to ash trees makes them unhealthy and a hazard to public safety. Commission members mapped more than 2,700 ash trees on 67 miles of town roads to report the status and condition of each ash tree for Vermont’s Roadside Ash Inventory. Next, the conservation commission worked with an arborist to apply approved insecticides to save important ash trees on town properties.

Waterways, River Corridors, Floodplains, & Buffers

Apart from lands, conservation commissions may also engage in stewarding and managing aquatic resources in town—such as rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. Town waterways are dynamic places that require special attention and planning. During high water events, many waterbodies exceed their normal capacity and spill water into the floodplain. These are areas that may be well-mapped, or less-well-mapped by the FEMA; in either way, town activities should be steered away from known or suspected floodplains. In a related phenomenon, rivers are constantly moving laterally to adjust their sinuosity because of their physical properties; like floodplains, communities should steer growth and development away river corridors. The Agency of Natural Resources coordinates mapping of river corridors. In many cases, towns have existing regulations (either set up by the municipality or in some cases by the state) to discourage development within the floodplain and river corridor. See the Rivers Program at Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Charlotte WatershED: Founded by the town librarian, editor of the town newspaper, and two members of the Charlotte Conservation Commission, the Charlotte WatershED project hopes to educate the local community about the area’s water resources. Through a series of events including speakers and workshops, this group has made a substantial effort working towards this goal in their town. Charlotte WatershED’s mission not only includes the education of citizens, but also includes a call-to-action to protect water resources regionally. Read More

Regardless of whether regulations exist for these areas, conservation commissions can work to ensure that native vegetation is present along the banks of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. These setback areas from the water’s edge, known as “buffers,” provide numerous functions, including bank stability, water quality protection, and wildlife habitat.

Conservation commissions should advocate for ecological management of waters and their buffers, for example by:

  • Restoring buffers along waterbodies that lack native vegetation;
  • Reducing the quantity of shorelines “armored” with riprap, concrete, and other impermeable surfaces;
  • Steering public uses away from the water’s edge to protect bank condition, water quality, and wildlife habitat.

For example, the Marshfield Conservation Commission partnered with the Friends of the Winooski and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to restore riparian lands along the Winooski on a town-owned property. Together, the partners developed a planting plan for a 50-foot wide, 9-acre riparian buffer (5.5 acres of new plantings to supplement 3.5 acres of existing vegetation). Planting was completed in stages starting in the Fall of 2007 and completed in 2014. Following tree loss from drought and herbivory, some areas were replanted in 2018 and 2020. As part of the project, the town of Marshfield also restored an historic covered bridge spanning the Winooski River, bringing together natural and cultural history into one meaningful project.

Assistance with Land Use Planning

JAM Golf Course decision

In 2009 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled against the City of South Burlington in a case that sets legal precedent for VT Municipalities. It suggests that towns need to be specific about what natural resources they are planning for (in the town plan) and what regulatory standards are applicable (in unified bylaws or zoning/ subdivision). Mapped data is an important part of the clarity towns can bring on where they are protecting and then offering clear definitions of any natural resources discussed.

6-5: Working with People & Landowners

Outreach & Education: Many conservation commissions conduct outreach and education to raise awareness about natural resources within town. In addition to educating community members, outreach initiatives foster positive community relationships and enrich town life.

One common type of outreach activity is a “Walks and Talks” series. In New Haven, the conservation commission hosts the “Armchair Naturalist Series,” inviting speakers to present on various natural history topics. Richmond engaged with the Vermont Master Naturalist Program to provide training to town members in natural history topics; graduates of the program conduct conservation service projects within the town. Other conservation commissions gear their walks and talks towards reaching private landowners in town. Thetford hosted “Crown Jewels” walks on private lands to highlight ecologically interesting lands and demonstrate what various landowners are doing to steward natural resources on their lands.

Woodbury’s Natural History Publication, Our Town: Introduction to Natural History: Susan Sawyer has been with the Woodbury Conservation Commission for about twenty years and she is a naturalist. The Conservation Commission’s role is to advise the select board and to educate the public on the issues that happen within Woodbury. Her main focus is on education and she is the one who wrote the natural history publication and created maps. It was published in 2006 but she started writing in in 2005. Other members of the WCC edited and town residents contributed photos for the publication. Anci Zahn, another Woodbury resident and professional graphic designer, did the layout of the publication. Woodbury Community Fund granted them $3000 to use for the publication, which covered the printing and mailing costs to all Woodbury landowners. The publication is twelve pages long with a total of 5000 words. The publication was only sent to those who are within Woodbury, but other conservationists and naturalists got some of the extra copies, and have done similar projects. Printing cost about $2 a booklet. Over $1000 was spent on mailing and all the grant money was spent. The publication goes in depth about topics like geology, water, wildlife, special ecosystems, and the species in the area. These topics might not be too in depth, but they are detailed enough that everyone can understand the material, whether or not you know the material or not. The big purpose of this is the community of Woodbury being aware of all the environmental factors that happen within Woodbury. The publication is meant to raise awareness all around the town of Woodbury. Read More

In a similar vein, some conservation commissions take it upon themselves to connect landowners with conservation program, such as the Use Value Appraisal Program (also known as “Current Use”). Interested landowners who enroll agricultural land, working forest, and some ecological lands in Current Use are taxed at the land’s “use” value (i.e. use as working forest or farmland) instead of its higher development value. The Battenkill Watershed Association maintains a “Menu” of landowner tools, describing different methods and opportunities for landowners to become better land stewards.

See Chapter 5 for more on engaging with people.

Assistance with Landowner Outreach

•             The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is a major player in cost-sharing conservation programs. Although these programs change throughout time, the general process starts with NRCS and partner organizations providing a free consultation to eligible landowners. Once a project is competitively selected for funding, NRCS provides funding to landowner to implement recommended habitat improvement projects.

•             Vermont’s fourteen Natural Resource Conservation Districts provide assistance on conservation, maintenance, improvement and development and use of land, soil, water, trees, vegetation, fish and wildlife and other natural resources in Vermont. Each of the 14 Conservation Districts serves a specific region of the state.

•             Land Trusts are non-profit entities that conserve land through a variety of techniques and commonly work with private landowners to protect the conservation values of their properties. Some Land Trusts work statewide, such as the Vermont Land Trust. Others focus on specific region or town, such as the Upper Valley Land Trust or the South Hero Land Trust.

•             Vermont Coverts is a non-profit organization that facilitates peer-to-peer learning among landowners about wildlife habitat and forest management. Vermont Coverts offers three-day trainings for landowners, teaching them about different habitat types and techniques, while connecting landowners to organizations and professionals operating in the field of conservation.

Burlington Climate Action Plan: The Climate Action Plan was initiated and developed by then Mayor Peter Clavelle and the Burlington City Council in 1998. The plan was then adopted by the City Council in May of 2000. The objectives of the Climate Action Plan are to reduce the impacts on human health, forests and agricultural land, winter recreation, along with the infrastructure/land and the correlation to water quality. Ultimately, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions within Burlington and the potentially the greater Chittenden County area is the main goal of this plan. The first target goal is to level off greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. Data collection to evaluate level of emissions includes data from municipal government operations, airport operations, and community-wide activity. A reduction of emissions is planned to begin by 2025. Read More

A Word About Climate Change

Each year, we learn more about how a changing climate will affect our communities and state. The scope of these changes can feel overwhelming! Because the work of a conservation commission is local by nature, it can feel challenging to address a complex global phenomenon working only at a local scale. Keep in mind, however, that many of the actions described in this chapter are examples of climate solutions. Protecting river buffers will help make communities more resilient to increased flooding; forest integrity planning will help keep our forests healthy and resilient to new invasives species and pathogens; making towns more sustainable and livable will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The conservation commission can become a source of inspiration and education for its community, articulating the connections between exciting community projects and their positive climate impacts. 

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