Survey and meetings to organize voluntary cooperation around land use issues

For many of us in Dummerston, the local landscape is an important part of our lives. The fields and forests of our town offer beautiful scenery, clean water, abundant wildlife and a variety of recreational opportunities.  Many of these benefits are not provided by individual pieces of property in isolation, but are the combined product of many landowners whose decisions about what to do with their land add up to create the landscape that we enjoy.
Dummerston may be one of the loveliest parts of America, but it is also an area of nationally highest risk for changes in land use and ownership that will threaten many of the benefits that our landscape has to offer.  Because these benefits are the combined product of many landowners, and because landowners have no way to charge people for these benefits, protecting what we love about the landscape will require a great deal of community cooperation—both among landowners and between landowners and the general public.

 

As a first step toward this cooperation, the Conservation Commission mailed a survey to all Dummerston residents (plus non-resident landowners) in late February, asking everyone how much they value the diversity of wildlife and our tradition of recreational access to land.  People were also asked how willing they would be to contribute to the protection of these things.  Landowners were asked what it would take for them to commit to preserving wildlife habitat and allowing recreational access.  360 households responded to the survey.

The two biggest threats to biodiversity in Dummerston are invasive exotic plant species, which displace the diversity of native plant species, and habitat loss and fragmentation.  Fewer than 2% of Dummerston residents who responded say they don’t care about this issue, and somewhere between 40% and 74% are willing to contribute money to a fund that would compensate landowners for protecting habitat.  But there is not very much that individual landowners can do when acting in isolation.  Invasive plants, once cleared from an area, will quickly come back from neighboring areas if they have not been removed there too.  And because wild animals roam over large areas, feeding in some places and sheltering in others, their habitat requirements have to be considered at large spatial scales.  Not only do animals need adequate types and quantities of habitat features overall, they also need these features to be arranged in useable patterns, connected by travel corridors.  This is why it is necessary for landowners to work together when planning how they will protect wildlife habitat.

More than two thirds of the landowners in Dummerston who responded to the survey and who own more than ten acres are concerned about protecting wildlife habitat and are willing to do it on their own property.  When asked what would make them more willing to commit to this, financial compensation was a factor for some (25%); but the most important motivating factor (important to 56%) would be an agreement with other landowners that they would all commit to preserving habitat together.  What needs to happen is for landowners who care about conservation to come together to discuss their management priorities and needs, and ultimately to reach some sort of mutual agreement regarding a conservation plan.  This may work better at the neighborhood level than at the town level.  And some commitment of support from non-landowners may need to be a part of this.

In Vermont we have a tradition of open public access to private land.  People may enjoy all forms of non-motorized recreation, including hunting, on any undeveloped land that isn’t posted with No Trespassing or No Hunting signs.  State-wide, recreational access to private land is decreasing.  This is partly due to increasing development, and partly to changing attitudes among landowners.  The amount of posted land in Vermont doubled between the early and the late 1990s.  The number of landowners in Dummerston seeking to limit all access to their land (both for hiking and hunting) is much higher than elsewhere in Vermont.

This is too bad for Dummerston residents, since almost 70% of survey respondents said that they value the tradition of open access “a lot”.  Hiking and walking are by far the most common activities that Dummerston residents pursue on other people’s land.  The next most popular activity is cross-country skiing, and hunting is third.  Between 46% and 74% of respondents would be willing to pay if necessary to enjoyed continued access to private land for recreation.

This may not be necessary however.  When landowners with more than ten acres were asked what would make them more willing to allow access, financial compensation was the least important thing (noted by only 5% of respondents).  34% said that they would be more willing to allow access for locals only; 34% said that they would be motivated by a mutual agreement with other landowners; and 72% said that they would like to see a well-understood code responsible conduct for recreational users of private land.  Such codes exist and are well publicized in Norway and Scotland, where both the rights and responsibilities of access to open land are established traditions.  The 50% of respondents who mentioned liability as a reason for limiting access are perhaps not aware that Vermont statutes protect landowners from liability.

It seems that Dummerston residents may be able to avoid the loss of recreational access to land if those who care were to form a group to engage landowners about their concerns.  A Dummerston hiking association or hunting association might be formed whose members could agree to a code of responsible conduct that addresses landowner concerns.  Landowners who post their land might then agree to allow access to members of the association.

Finally, more than 70% of survey respondents think that sprawl could be a problem here, and more than half would like to see more conservations easements on land in Dummerston.  A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust which limits what a landowner is allowed to do with his or her land.  Easements are a popular way of protecting farmland, wildlife habitat, and other valuable spaces from development.  Between 31% and 63% of Dummerston residents would be willing to donate money in order to see more conservation easements in Dummerston.  More than half of Dummerston landowners who have more than 10 acres would be willing to consider a conservation easement on their land.  43% of respondents said that they would be motivated by some financial compensation, and 45% said that they would be more willing to sell or donate an easement as part of an agreement with other landowners that they would all do it together.  This would of course be the most effective way of protecting both scenery and habitat.

The main point to be made here is that protecting what we love about the Dummerston landscape—a landscape divided into hundreds of private properties—is a project that will require a lot of cooperation.