Last week, the Vermont Legislature adjourned for 2023, wrapping up the first year of its 77th Biennium. Well, almost… while the House & Senate were able to pass an $8.4 billion state budget – the largest in state history – and significant legislation expanding childcare and address the housing crisis, it’s almost inevitable that a veto from the Governor’s office will bring lawmakers back to Montpelier next month. The Legislature already overrode Governor Scott’s veto of the Affordable Heat Act (S.5) earlier in May.
So, while there still may be fireworks to come, we felt it was a great time to share some highlights from our work during the session.
As we’ve shared in prior posts, VMBA’s approach to influencing legislation, regulations, and funding that impacts trails is fundamentally through partnerships. While it is often easier to act alone, the effect of advocacy scales dramatically the more interests and people come to the table.
First and foremost, VMBA redoubled our commitment to help lead the Vermont Trails & Greenways Council, which represents the full collection of trail stewardship organizations in Vermont. Through monthly meetings open to all members (30+) and subcommittees focused on Best Management Practices, Legislative Affairs, and Membership, the Council helps align and advance the collective interests of the trail community. VMBA also helped secure funding for and establish the VTGC’s first ever paid staff position, which will be instrumental in accelerate it’s ability to drive change and connect with members. Check out this Advocacy Spotlight earlier in the year to learn more about the Council.
Both as VMBA ED and in his role as Co-Chair of the VTGC, Nick spent much of the winter and spring advancing collaborations with conservation-focused organizations like the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Trust for Public Land, as well as with community development groups like the Vermont Council on Rural Development and outdoor recreation businesses through the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance. Last but far from least, we continued to work closely with both State and Federal land managers – VT-FPR and the USFS – to plan for more and better recreational access on public land and to continually improve trail accessibility and sustainability. As outlined in the 5-Year Strategic Plan we published earlier in the year, these partners are critical to advancing our advocacy goals, not to mention our trail and community priorities.
In addition to being the first year of a biennial session, 2023 saw the highest ever rate of first-time legislators new to the role – roughly 30% in both the House and the Senate. With so many folks new to the Statehouse, alongside a reshuffling of committees and responsibilities, the VTGC entered the year with a plan to introduce ourselves – and the value and needs of the trail community – to as many folks in Montpelier as possible. This included providing introductory testimony with the House Committee on Agriculture, Food, and Forestry, which oversees recreational trails, speaking at Tourism Day at the Statehouse, hosting an Ice Cream Social in the Capital Cafeteria, speaking with the Rural Caucus, and countless hallway conversations.
The excellent news is that it was hard to find a person who didn’t immediately appreciate the key role outdoor recreation plays in Vermont’s identity. Most were keen to learn more about the hard impacts – like the fact outdoor recreation contributes over 4% to Vermont’s State GDP and that the majority of our 8,000+ miles of trails are on private land – and discuss how they could help. These conversations have seeded future debates on increasing funding for stewardship and new outdoor recreation assets, establishing more effective oversight programs, and acknowledging the private landowners who graciously host public-access trails. Critically, folks throughout Montpelier know to talk with the VTGC – and by proxy, VMBA – when legislations or policies affect recreational trails.
And while we are mainly looking ahead for significant legislation pertaining to trails, leveraging our partnerships and building upon the relationships we established this session, there were some important bills we helped advance this session.
The one you’ve most likely heard of is H.126, An act related to community resilience and biodiversity protection. More commonly referred to as the “30 x 30” bill, H.126 elevates land conservation as a necessary strategy to promote the health of Vermont’s forests and initiates a planning process that will incorporate outdoor recreation, sustainable forestry, public health and climate resilient communities. This policy supports implementation of the Vermont’s Climate Action Plan’s goal of conserving 30% of Vermont’s land by 2030, and even go one step further to 50% by 2050. The bill was given final approval by the Legislature and is now awaiting action by Governor Scott.
Should the bill become law, the Agency of Natural Resources, with support from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, will work with stakeholders such as private landowners, land trusts, conservation groups, working lands enterprises, outdoor recreation groups and businesses, planners, Indigenous groups, and the public at-large, to determine the tools, programs, and mechanisms needed to meet the conservation goals. Critically, the Senate markup of the bill included additional language of the role public-access recreation plays in land conservation, for which it is a recognized purpose in Vermont Statute. Recreational access to and use of conserved lands is prominent throughout the language, and we look forward to playing an active role in helping shape the plan itself as a key stakeholder organization.
Less far along – but of huge importance to both VMBA and the VTGC – is H.131, an act related to the Green Mountain Recreation Fund. If passed, this bill would establish dedicated funding for both the VTGC and VT-FPR to modernize and oversee the Vermont Trail System, better tools and support for trail organizations, and a dedicated stewardship fund focused on maintenance, upgrades, and repairs. Currently a short-form bill with the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry, VTGC and FPR representatives had an opportunity to testify on H.126 and the Committee expressed clear interest in seeing a long-form of the bill when they return for the second half of the biennium. The Council will be working over the next few months to flush out the details and home in on a funding mechanism. Stay tuned!
There are a few additional bills we worked on with stakeholders and will certainly be in play next session, including H.85, an act relating to trail accessibility, and H.310, an act relating to the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative. The former would set mandates for accessibility requirements for new trails built on State land or with State funds, while the latter would replenish the VOREC Community Grant program and its capacity to fund new outdoor recreation infrastructure. Both these bills also live alongside H.131 in a Recreation Omnibus bill, H.467, which seeks to collectively advance stewardship, accessibility, and new community-centered resources.
While the next session doesn’t officially kick off until January, 2024, we will be busy throughout the summer and fall working with our partners – new and old – to plan, budget, and develop language that we hope will see legislation pass that will shape the landscape of trail-based recreation for years to come and set the stage for future progress on regulation and landowner recognition. Stay tuned for more updates – if and when we are able to advance one or more of the bills above, we will certainly ask our membership to ask their legislators for their support!