Column: Devastation Led to Call for Protection of Vermont’s Environment

As we celebrate the success of the federal Endangered Species Act, currently in its 40th year, we are taking stock of the role it has played in the restoration of many fish, wildlife and plant species across the nation that were on the brink of extinction. At the same time, we should recall that a handful of Vermonters recognized the value and importance of conserving fish and wildlife species and their habitats even before the Endangered Species Act was conceived.

The conservation ethic that took root early in Vermont, and spread to the rest of the country, remains a part of our state’s culture and shared heritage. But it is also important to remember that it grew not out of care, but out of exploitation. After settlement in the late 1700s, prevailing attitudes and the land-use practices that came with them led to the extirpation of many of Vermont’s native species.

The mid- to late 1800s saw massive clearing of the forests, the siltation and pollution of many of our water bodies, and the unregulated taking of fish and wildlife. Many of the species we cherish most today, including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bald eagles, beaver, salmon, fisher and others were essentially extinct.

In 1864, the clarion call for change came from Vermonter George Perkins Marsh, a resident of Woodstock, in his book Man and Nature. Marsh recognized that man, like other forms of life, “nourished at the table of bounteous nature” and that by destroying nature, the human population was undermining the very foundation it depended on for survival. Thus Marsh, in the mid-1800s, was one of the first people in the country to introduce the concept of conservation and the sustainable management of valuable forest and wildlife resources.

In 1866, the Vermont Legislature, in response to the devastation, appointed a Board of Fish Commissioners, the precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Department, to focus on the restoration of brook and lake trout, which it understood required “pure water.”

In the years leading up to the federal act, many of the species we now regularly see, including deer, turkey, beaver, fisher and peregrine falcons, were reintroduced to the state. Now, some of those species are more common than they were prior to European settlement. Thanks to these efforts, and to the effects of state and federal laws and programs, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other species are making a comeback in the state, providing a richness to our interactions with wild things that cannot be overestimated. Today, more Vermonters, 62 percent, participate in wildlife watching, hunting and fishing than residents of any other state in the nation except Alaska.

Vermonters’ passion for the land and our commitment to conservation has led to the successes of the past 100 years. The recovery of these once-endangered species is a testament to the importance of a connection to the land and the water in our cultural heritage and to our long-standing engagement with wild animals and places.

Maintaining our connection to the land will ensure the success of the Endangered Species Act for generations to come.

Kim Royar is special assistant to the commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife.