How Green Are Our Green Mountains?

by Sarah Davin

“Let us live to protect her beauty,” sings our state anthem, “These Green Mountains” by Diane Martin. Just like the lyric, Vermonters love to boast about our natural beauty, and gazing at the forested mountains, listening to the dense chatter of wildlife, dipping our toes in cool swimming holes, and taking deep breaths of mountain air, there seems to be ample evidence of this organic, Eden-esque vision.

But is it true? Pride aside, are we keeping our oath to protect Vermont’s water, air, forests, and wildlife?   

Water

While 72 percent of Vermonters are served by community water systems, Vermont is unique in the fact that 37 percent of those community systems are “smaller systems” that serve fewer than 3,300 people, far more than the national total of 9 percent. However, these systems are harder to maintain because of their complexity, costs associated with regulations, and need for repairs. According to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2017 Annual Report on Public Water System Violations, the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division issued a total of 767 violations in Vermont.

And as beautifully as Lake Champlain shimmers at a distance, it would be a bad idea to drink the water. The lake is plagued by cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae, which releases toxins into the water. Lake Champlain isn’t the only body of water to be affected by the toxic algae, which is fed by  phosphorus from agricultural runoff and other sources. Vermont’s Environmental Health Division also includes Shelburne Pond and Lake Carmi in its weekly, online cyanobacteria reports.

The result of this pollution has seen some beach-going Vermonters turned away from the shore on steamy summer days, as well as the mass deaths of fish and mussels in Missisquoi Bay. There’s some good news in the $8.4 million of federal funding allocated in July 2018 through a bipartisan amendment authored by Rep. Peter Welch and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York for the cleanup of Lake Champlain, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the amount needed, and federally required, to clean up the state’s freshwater gem.

Air

In terms of our air quality, Vermont does have a reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Burlington was named one of the cleanest cities in the country by the American Lung Association in its “State of the Air 2018” report, with zero days of ozone and particle pollution for three years. This stands in contrast to the rest of the nation, where half of Americans live with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

While our current air quality is something to be happy about, trends in Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions are concerning. The June 2018 Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update reported a 10-percent increase of greenhouse gases from 2014 through 2015. Total emissions rose 16 percent since 1990, making it difficult for Vermont to reach its goal of being 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2028. Vermont currently has lower per capita carbon dioxide emissions than the national average, but the report shows that the difference has been decreasing.

Forests

According to the website Vermont Climate Assessment, the average annual temperature in Vermont has increased by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960 and 45 percent of that increase has happened since the 1990s. Because of the general trend toward warmer weather, some Vermont trees, such as oak, hickory, and red maple, will benefit while other species, such as spruce and fir, will suffer. The rising temperatures will also increase Vermont’s chances for wildfires. As our state witnesses more summer dry spells, the danger grows.

This summer, there has been a lot of focus on the emerald ash borer and its devastating effect of our local ash trees. While it is important to address the threat of the borers, ash trees are not the only ones in danger. Last year, according to the May 2018 Forest Tent Caterpillar Update, issued by the Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation, the caterpillars defoliated 60,584 acres, more than twice the previous year’s total. According to data from the 2017 moth traps, we can expect more widespread defoliation this year as well. Tent caterpillars can affect maple sugar production, increasing the mortality of maple trees and decreasing the amount of sugar present in the maple sap as trees try to heal the damage.

Wildlife

According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s 2015 Vermont Wildlife Action Plan, overall, the health of Vermont’s wildlife is looking good. Species of animals that were once scarce are now thriving in the state’s forest environment. These reintroduced or recovered animals include wild turkeys, beavers, and fisher cats. The white-tailed deer population appears to have grown by an estimated 10,000 since last year, too.

Unfortunately, not all of Vermont’s animals are thriving. In 2015, nine species of bumble bees were added to the Species of Greatest Conservation Need list, and it isn’t just the small pollinators that are struggling. Our local moose population has been suffering from an epidemic of ticks, creating the “ghost moose”—the result of 20,000 to 60,000 winter ticks on its body draining it of blood and health. This year, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department only issued 14 moose hunting permits for the fall season, which is drastically lower than previous years, such as 2015, in which Vermont Business Magazine reported that 225 moose hunting permits were issued for the regular season.

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