The Mountain Times

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As land fragments, Vermont faces myriad challenges

Photos by Alex MacLean/VNRC
Jamey Fidel, standing outside the Vermont Natural Resources Council office in Montpelier, is working to raise awareness of the threats brought by fragmentation of land ownership.

The Vermont we know started way back in 1749 with New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth. Call him Vermont's first great subdivider (and arguably an illegal one.) Today, he would be astounded at how the 6,158,000 acres (give or take a few) that comprise the Green Mountain State have ended up: parceled out, split, re-aggregated, accumulated and divided, splintered and fractioned, slivered and spaghetti-lotted into an ever-multiplying jigsaw puzzle of mind-boggling, odd-shaped land parcels.Land ownership today is almost infinitely removed from the original six-square-mile town grants west of the Connecticut River that Wentworth gave out back in the mid-18th century, creating 129 Vermont towns out of whole cloth during a 14-year period. In the intervening centuries, tens of thousands of land transfers and divisions have occurred, leading to a complex land ownership pattern that today impacts - even threatens - much of what we cherish. The problem is called "land parcelization" or "forest fragmentation," two verbal mouthfuls that are not high on most folks mental totem pole. But the endless and relentless subdivision of parcels across Vermont's landscape is perhaps the most important topic you've never heard of. "It's happening somewhat under the radar. We call it silent sprawl. It's hard to quantify, and its cumulative effect is concerning," says Jamey Fidel, a University of Vermont and Vermont Law School graduate. Fidel directs the forest and biodiversity programs at the Vermont Natural Resources Council in Montpelier. Talk with Fidel for long and you'll see that the effects of fragmented land ownership spill over and seep into every prominent nook of Vermont life: plant and avian habitat and sustainability, forests and the timber industry, wildlife, recreation and trail use, hunting, water resources, taxes and town budgets, and the state's economy. Fidel may know more about the topic than anyone else in the state. Along with co-authors Deb Brighton of the advocacy nonprofit Vermont Family Forests and Brian Shupe, who now heads VNRC but formerly headed Smart Growth Vermont and was a longtime resort area planner, Fidel put together fragmentation numbers, facts and a litany of concerning impacts in a 2010 study. The 32-page report - dense, impressive and filled with charts and graphs - landed with sort of an underwhelming thud. "It's hard to drum up a lot of media reporting on it," he admits, noting it's a "wonky" subject. But Fidel says the report has provided an important baseline. "Part of what we wanted to do is just really quantify this (fragmentation,)" he explains. Another goal was to raise awareness among Vermont's landowners, planners, zoning boards and land use officials that there's things towns can do to slow the process and subdivide land in ways that preserve many things Vermonters cherish.Towns, he explains, "can reshape the way growth occurs," as can Vermont's private landowners who, he says, are key in smart development that preserves wise land use. "When people ask me about the two biggest challenges for fish and wildlife in Vermont, I would tell you that they are development and climate change," says the head of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Patrick Berry. "And parcelization of land is directly linked and will have a big impact on both development and climate change."  The cutting up of land into ever-smaller pieces creates a sort of natural resources house of cards - at some point it can all come tumbling down. Break up a big parcel into small enough pieces, plunk in a few houses "and it's basically lost as hunting and suitable wildlife habitat," says Berry."It may look like a nice bucolic development pattern but functionally, you've degraded the larger ecological system," he says.VNRC and its partners are now working to provide updated fragmentation figures and studying a range of towns to put a local face on the data and understand how zoning figures in, says Fidel.  A critical line of demarcation for a functional forest ecosystem, according to Fidel and his co-authors, is 50 acres. Below that, land is not "economically or ecologically viable." While 71 percent of Vermont in 2009 was in parcels 50 acres or larger - some 3.4 million acres - that comforting figure is balanced by the fact only a quarter was in forestland, and 42 percent of parcels larger than 50 acres had a non-farm dwelling, which affects how the land is used. Beyond the statistics, a sense emerges how fragmentation of land subtly, cumulatively, and surprisingly, changes the Vermont environment. By subdividing a large parcel and adding driveways, that can open the door to invasive plants, close a habitat door for thrushes, cooper hawks, barred owls and porcupines, affect deer habits and hunting, remove the prospect of ever taking timber and improving the forest stand, affect trails and wetlands and watershed protection, and alter local hydrology. Beyond potential lost economic activity, there's the loss of forest to ameliorate climate change and loss of vital connectivity that wildlife depend on. Berry says a slice of Vermont life can be lost as well when land is subdivided. When he speaks to hunting groups, he often asks how many have experienced going to a favorite hunting spot to find a new house in the middle or land now posted. Often half will raise their hand, he says. "There's both an ecological and cultural impact," he says. It doesn't always have to be that way: Subdivide a 60 acre parcel by putting 50 acres in conservation easements and putting five houses on two acre lots and you have a viable ecological alternative. Fidel says he is concerned that parcelization may be impacting the long-standing accepted truth that Vermont is 80-percent forested, compared to only 20 percent a century ago. That 80-percent figure may no longer be true, he thinks.  In Chittenden County, for example, data shows a 4.4 percent decline in forestland during the last 15 years. Looking statewide, 25 years ago, 19,000 individuals owned forest parcels 1-9 acres in size. By 1993, the figure was 40,900. A lot of land was cut into smaller parcels, in other words, with dwellings added. And the amount of woodland in parcels 50 acres or larger declined by about 4 percent between 2003 and 2009 - roughly 34,000 acres.  Fragmentation isn't just something contemplated at the policy level. At the ground level, it touches many people. Take the state's snowmobiling community. At the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), the nonprofit organization's 5,000 miles of winter trails now cross over - count 'em - around 8,000 private and public landowners' property. That creates a tremendous headache for VAST's 129 snowmobile clubs, because volunteers must get landowner trail permissions each year, says Executive Director Alexis Nelson. "It certainly is one of our challenges," she says. "It's a huge time commitment and it takes a lot of resources." If a parcel is subdivided and has five new owners, each of those has to be approached. If one refuses to let the trail through, then a new route has to be found, she says.  "It can be quite a challenging venture," she explains.Fidel's team at VNRC and others, like Berry, know that they can't stop development, but hope they can raise awareness of how to do it better and smarter by keeping Vermont's living natural resources in mind. Berry notes his department has a full-time person working with towns to raise the issue and help draft town plans. Ultimately, education - smarter zoning, planning, teaching towns about fragmentation's impacts and connecting with private landowners  - is the key, they say. "I think there's a common goal of slowing the degree of fragmentation," says Fidel. Even Benning Wentworth would probably agree.In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont's innovators, people, ideas and places. Andrew Nemethy is a veteran journalist and editor who lives in Calais.

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Photos by Alex MacLean/VNRC
This aerial photo of development in Vermont shows forestland converted to housing and lost to natural resource uses.

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