By MICHAEL FRETT
Islander Staff Writer
NORTH HERO – Collecting at the North Hero Community Hall on Tuesday, conservation groups met with residents in the Champlain Islands to, according to regional conservation district directors, better align conservation resources with local concerns.
Directors for two of the region’s three natural resources conservation districts invited feedback during Tuesday’s forum from groups of residents following a series of charrette-style discussions about conservation concerns in the Champlain Islands and other local issues.
“This is us gathering the needs of our communities,” Lauren Weston, the director of the Franklin County Natural Resources Conservation District, said. “It’s really about gathering what you care about, so we make sure we’re all working toward the same goals and we’re not missing things.”
Natural resources conservation districts are organizations formed under state law to work with landowners and government agencies to support conservation programming in Vermont.
On Tuesday, it was the heads of Franklin and Lamoille counties’ districts coordinating the forum. Together, the two districts, alongside the Grand Isle County Natural Resources Conservation District, compose the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Northwest Vermont administrative zone.
According to Weston, Tuesday’s meeting, one in an ongoing series spanning the three counties, was intended to help regional conservation districts like hers and the Grand Isle County district to better administer grant funding toward local conservation projects.
While Weston said the results of forums like Tuesday’s would not preclude other conservation charges coming from state and federal agencies, she said they would still allow the local conservation districts to better prioritize local concerns as they move conservation resources toward existing projects.
“This is really trying to get at where needs aren’t being met in our existing system,” Weston told The Islander. “From here, we’ll follow the grant cycle and chase opportunities to meet the needs expressed.”
Those needs, according to residents of Vermont’s northwesternmost county, varied widely.
Many of those attending Tuesday’s forums were farmers, who shared concerns about being able to accurately track their environmental impacts, as well as questioned what farming could even look like in the Champlain Islands as agriculture in Vermont largely transitions away from conventional dairy.
“We want to know if it makes a difference,” one farmer said during the meeting’s breakaway discussions. “Wouldn’t you want to know?”
Others shared concerns about being able to publicly access the region’s natural resources, as well as balancing growing development pressure in parts of the Champlain Islands with environmental needs.
John Chesarek from the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain said his breakaway group talked about protecting water quality particularly as it related to phosphorus, a common nutrient that, in excess, can nurture the sometimes toxic blooms of cyanobacteria – or “blue-green algae” – choking parts of Lake Champlain every summer.
“Where is the phosphorus coming from?” he said, summarizing his group’s discussion. “Is it the farms draining into the areas where we’re sampling or is it coming from somewhere else?”
Along those same lines, others asked about whether the resources available for conservation projects would be able to reach the farmers, homeowners and municipal governments charged under state and federal laws with managing certain water quality impacts related to stormwater runoff and erosion.
Others still noted an apparent “mismatch” in the Champlain Islands between its celebrated agricultural economy and ongoing challenges with food insecurity in a county where, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by Feeding America, somewhere around 8% of the population and 10% of children were considered “food insecure.”
According to Weston, the director of Franklin County’s natural resources conservation district, meetings like those in North Hero last week would be recurring, taking place twice a year between the region’s three counties as conservation officials look to better understand conservation needs on the ground.
For those unable to make any of the districts’ meetings, a survey was also circulating online where people can share their concerns. That survey can be found at https://www.franklincountynrcd.org/local.
“Conservation districts do great work,” Weston said. “It’s good to have this input so we’re as effective as we can be.”