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Debevoise commentary: Support Vermont’s working lands

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2012-04-12

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Tom Debevoise, the owner of Upwey Farm in South Woodstock. He served as chairman of the Council on the Future of Vermont in 2008-09.

Sometimes I have trouble getting excited about what the Legislature is up to. Sometimes I see no urgency to the matters under debate. Not so this year, because the Working Lands bill now before the Vermont Senate will potentially have more impact on the Vermont our children inhabit than any piece of legislation in recent memory.

I had the privilege of serving as chairman of the Council on the Future of Vermont, which worked for 18 months in 2008 and 2009 on an exhaustive study of what Vermonters considered most important about our state and what they wanted to see it become over the next 20 years.

The council itself was a very diverse group and it made a point of energetically soliciting the opinions of people from all different backgrounds, ages, political persuasions, income levels, and hometowns. We held public hearings in every county; we met with businesses, nonprofits, schoolchildren, retirees, inmates and more. We sponsored an online discussion and commissioned a phone poll. No other effort in Vermont’s history ever worked harder at producing an accurate report of Vermonters’ concerns and hopes for their state.

The topic that came up time and again as we crisscrossed the state was the importance of the working landscape to our identity, our economy, our way of life, and our future. Of all the issues we discussed with Vermonters, no other topic came up as often or was valued more highly.

In the meantime, the economic downturn added urgency to our need to create jobs based on our own resources. Our farmlands and forests have the potential to bolster the economies of towns throughout the state. Just as important, we have a generation of enterprising and innovative young entrepreneurs that want to make that happen. The time could not be more appropriate for energetic encouragement of land-based businesses by our state government.

The House of Representatives recognized this opportunity, passing the Working Lands bill with a $2 million appropriation by a vote of 131-5. We can only hope that the state Senate will show the same vision and also pass the bill, with the money needed for implementation. That foresight would give new life to an integral part of Vermont’s identity that the vast majority of us do not want to lose.

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