An Imperfect Picture: Why We need Commons Conservation

Featured image for “An Imperfect Picture: Why We need Commons Conservation”

Recently we’ve been busy at Vermont Family Forests letting people know about our upcoming Commons Conservation Congress, during which we’ll be exploring how we community members can care well for those parts of our home place that everyone shares and no one owns—namely air, water, and wildlife. We hired a local artist to paint a picture that evokes our region and its natural commons, and we’ve been using her beautiful watercolor in our publicity.

The other day, we got some friendly feedback about the painting from a community member in the Mad River area of our ecoregion—someone who’s actively engaged in caring for that river for many years. 

“I just took a look at the poster,” she wrote, “and would like to respectfully suggest that next time a healthy riparian buffer strip be shown by the stream or river. It would model a much more resilient and healthy ecosystem.”

watercolor painting of fields, mountains, and sky.

So true! Vermont Family Forests’ conservation practices clearly advocate healthy buffer strips (native vegetation of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants) of at least 25 feet wide along waterways and around sensitive riparian areas like seeps and vernal pools. VFF is, as they say, all about buffers. 

Yet if this beautiful painting of our home place lacks buffers along a section of the depicted waterway, then it accurately portrays an important and inconvenient truth: Vermont’s natural beauty masks real ecological issues. Looking out upon this land’s verdant mountains and hillsides now gloriously dappled with autumn hues, its cascading streams and winding rivers, picturesque farms and fields, shimmering lakes and rivers, it’s all too easy to miss the gaping holes in the ecological fabric of our beloved home grounds. 

Inadequate stream buffers—which allow sediments and other pollutants from roads, logging sites, farm fields, and suburban neighborhoods to flow into streams and rivers—are just one of many issues impacting water quality in our lakes and streams. Cyanobacteria alerts are common summer occurrences in Lake Champlain, as are high phosphorus levels. Some 90% of that phosphorus comes from non-point sources—about 39% from farm runoff, the rest from roads and urban stormwater.

Similarly, Vermont’s clear skies can blind us to the ways we Vermonters contribute to atmospheric carbon levels and climate change. In 2007, the Vermont Legislature passed a law that called for a 25% reduction in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2012, 50% below by 2028 and 75% below by 2050.  

Today, Vermont’s emissions are 16% higher than in 1990, and officials already admit that we will not meet the 2028 goal. Transportation and heating now account for almost 70% of the state’s greenhouse gas production. Emissions from transportation, the single biggest contributor, are now 28% higher than they were in 1990.

And what about our third natural commons—wildlife? Habitat loss and fragmentation, non-native species, and a rapidly changing climate all pose critical threats to the wild animals with whom we share this beautiful place we call home.  

All of this is why Vermont Family Forests is holding a Commons Conservation Congress. And it’s why we commissioned the beautiful watercolor to help spread the word. We can’t sit back and hope that our government will solve the real issues facing our commons—at present, our federal government is actively dismantling regulations aimed at safeguarding air, water, and wildlife. What’s needed is to engage and empower commoners to step up to the work and pleasure of commoning, here and now. 

We have so many great examples of commoning already underway here at home. The Addison County River Watch Collaborative is a network of volunteers who engage in scientifically rigorous monitoring of water quality in our local waterways. Jim Andrews’ Vermont Herp Atlas engages hundreds of volunteers to monitor reptile and amphibian populations across our ecoregion and across the state. Conservation commissions across our region carry out many projects on behalf of the natural commons—from invasive plant pulling to streamside restorations. And there is so much more we can do. We can imagine and undertake this together.

Please add your voice to the conversation at Caring for Our Home Grounds: A Commons Conservation Congress for Vermont’s Center-West Ecoregion on November 2, from 8:30am – 1:00pm. You’ll find details and registration information on the Vermont Family Forests website,