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When the Rivers Rise

From the governor to Native leaders to maple syrup producers, Vermonters aren't sitting still for climate change

By Tristram Korten

When the hard rains slowed and the winds calmed, Vermont governor Peter Shumlin climbed into a National Guard helicopter at Knapp State Airport. As the chopper lifted off, Shumlin looked down at a landscape reshaped by the violence of water. It was the aftermath of Irene, a tropical storm that unleashed a torrent over the state last August. The rains rushed down mountainsides and engorged rivers and streams that charged over their banks and rampaged through towns. Homes were torn from their foundations, cars were flung into walls, and farmers' fields were turned into lakes. More than 500 miles of roads were ripped up or made impassable, and at least 20 bridges were washed out, among them several historic covered bridges.

A lot of things raced through the governor's mind as he gazed down—among them, the logistics of getting food and water to stranded communities and the need to get Federal Emergency Management Administration officials in on this as soon as possible. But not too far off in his thinking was the belief that there was more to come. In the eight months since he'd taken office, Shumlin had dealt with a major blizzard in March, unprecedented flooding in April and May, and now Irene. He put the blame for the frequency of these events squarely on climate change.

Shumlin is no recent climate change convert. He is, however, among a handful of politicians willing to talk about the issue with any sense of urgency. In the two decades since scientists started coming out with reports showing how a warming Earth destabilizes global weather patterns, the conversation in this country has devolved into a partisan debate over whether there is a problem at all. In 2006 the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of Americans believed there was solid evidence that Earth was warming. By 2010 that number had dwindled to just 59 percent. A couple of cold winters, an economic crash, and the power of the fossil fuel lobby had conspired to diminish the threat's importance.

Vermont will "provide the brainpower, make the products, and seize the job opportunities" of a low-carbon economy.

Not for Shumlin. He made facing climate change a plank in his 2010 campaign. And after the election—a squeaker that Shumlin won by 2 percentage points—he took it on during his inauguration speech. He asserted that the country's leaders, "influenced by the extraordinary economic power of oil, coal, and automobile companies, equivocate about climate change." Then he hit the hopeful note that has been his mantra since: his belief that Vermont would "provide the brainpower, make the products, and seize the job opportunities a lower carbon economy requires."

Peter Shumlin is a tall, lean 55-year-old whose clean-shaven face and neatly trimmed hair, gone gray at the temples, telegraph the polish of a man who has spent decades in politics. But on the blustery morning when I visited the governor's executive offices, he was a study in casual, reclining in his office chair with his feet up on his desk while reading some papers. He was dressed in standard business attire—starched blue shirt, red tie, and gray suit slacks—but wore clog-style barn shoes. "I hate wearing shoes, and these come off easily," he explained.

Born and raised in the southern Vermont town of Putney, Shumlin is the son of educational entrepreneurs who launched a student travel agency in a barn on their property. A dyslexic, Shumlin "learned differently," as he likes to say. Too differently for the school system at the time: By second grade, his principal was somberly explaining to his parents that the teachers would do the best they could but probably wouldn't be able to teach him to read.

Fortunately, "I had a teacher who believed in me," Shumlin said. Claire Oglesby would load the young Shumlin into her Willys jeep after school and drive him to her home deep in the woods, where they would sit by the cast-iron stove. "Slowly, creatively, she taught me how to read," he recalled. Overcoming that challenge sparked a lifelong engagement with education. Shumlin went on to graduate from Wesleyan University. Along with his brother Jeff, he took over the family business. Elected as a selectman in Putney in the 1980s, he championed a proposal to build a college for learning disabled students over a rival plan to build a prison. He became a trustee of that school, Landmark College. He then served eight terms as a state senator.

The young Shumlin often escaped to the great outdoors as a respite from the confusing world of books. He skied, hunted, fished, and did some "sugaring," as locals call tapping maple trees for their sap. Today he is understandably protective of wild places. "My belief is that we cannot scramble fast enough to get off fossil fuels," he told me. "My conviction comes from the land I grew up on in southern Vermont and the changes I've seen over the last 40 years." The pond on that land was once alive with toads and salamanders but is now a "dead zone from acid rain," he said. And the stands of "sugar bush"—Vermont-speak for a group of maple trees—are now overrun by buckthorn. When he would go out hunting as a boy, it used to be so cold in his deer stand that he'd worry about freezing to death. Three years ago he bagged an eight-point buck on the last day of the season, in December. "It was 68 degrees," he recalled. "I was in running shoes and shorts."

Shumlin's election came at a fortuitous time for the Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has launched its own ambitious response to climate change: the statewide <Our Forests, Our Future campaign. Its goal is to create migratory corridors, with land that can be acquired by local towns and native tribes, that will allow cold-weather animals to move north as their habitat transforms. Crucial to the plan is the acquisition of lands along the state's borders with New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada, which will keep the corridor biologically viable.

For the past year David Van Deusen, the Club's Vermont conservation organizer, has been building consensus among a delicate coalition—native tribes, local populations, and labor unions—about what these "town forests" should offer the communities that will control them. Van Deusen, a former archaeologist who's fond of broad-brimmed hats, has toured the state getting input and ideas—sustainable logging and firewood operations are two suggestions that would help bring in some local revenue and provide heating assistance for the poor.

These alliances have not always been easy to forge. The Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, for instance, distrusted the Sierra Club, which in the late 1990s had supported an effort to protect some traditionally tribal lands that ended up putting them under federal control.

"I see it as a human thing. God made the atmosphere with a certain recipe, and we've been adding another ingredient."

"The Sierra Club is not considered a friend by my people," tribal leader Luke Willard told me as we walked along the windswept southern shore of Lake Willoughby, whose choppy waters lie between the two glacier-cleaved halves of a mountain. Still, when Van Deusen arranged to meet with Willard to ask the Nulhegan to support the Our Forests, Our Future campaign, Willard agreed, and the groups are now partners. "I'm not here to endorse Al Gore or the environmental lobby," he cautioned. "But we've got some serious stuff going on here. I think the planet is just responding to a society that has allowed corporate and political greed to flourish."

Ironworkers Local 7 was another "nontraditional ally," as Van Deusen put it. "I've never worked with an environmental group before," Michael Morelli, the union's Vermont business agent, said. "But I know Dave, and it seemed like the right thing to do."

The coalition is trying to persuade the state to find money for the wildlife corridors. Vermont's Sierra Club leaders don't expect a cash-strapped government to pony up much new money, but they do think that existing funds—in federal land management and state housing and conservation programs—could get a program going. They want the state to start with $3.5 million, bank it, and use the interest to buy land every year.

"Now we're working on getting policymakers on board," Van Deusen said. Chief among them is Shumlin. It helps that many of the groups in the coalition, including the Vermont AFL-CIO, are Shumlin allies. Morelli, for example, recalled how Shumlin had arranged for his union to sit down with a contractor to work out the details of a large public-works project. And only in Shumlin's term did the Nulhegan Abenaki (and the Elnu Abenaki, another Club partner) gain official state recognition. "Peter Shumlin is the first governor who looked at us as equals, and not as a thorn in his side," Willard said. "It meant a lot to all of us."

Shumlin's first order of business when he took office was to demand that the state's aging nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, be shut down in 2012, when its 40-year licensing permit expires—which the owners are fighting in court. Since then he has used his bully pulpit to promote the upside of adapting to climate change. He has called for the state to get 75 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within 20 years. And he's proposed updating building codes to require tighter energy efficiency, which he says will create jobs as windows and doors throughout the state are replaced. He says his state is the perfect place for alternative-energy innovation: "I want to move quickly from fossil fuels in Vermont and harness the sun, wind, water, and woods" as fuel. He's pushing to install a system of electric-car charging stations. "There is a huge opportunity for job creation as we innovate our way out of this," he said. "I want Vermont to lead the way."

Vermont has a population of roughly 625,000—a little more than Seattle's—and an economy that is noticeably light on fossil fuel production. So Shumlin doesn't have to face the kind of deep-pocketed special interests that might oppose him in more industrial states. Vermonters live closer to the land than most other Americans. Roughly 78 percent of the state is forested, and three out of five of its residents use firewood as a primary heating source. Hunting is more than recreation for many Vermonters; it's a significant source of protein. And everyone, it seems, taps the maple trees on their land to make syrup. So the problems posed by crazy weather are directly felt.

Set along a rolling hillside about three miles from downtown Montpelier, which may be the only state capital without a McDonald's, is Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, where all things maple—syrup, sugar, candy, even bacon—are sold. When I drove up and asked a woman where I could find owner Burr Morse, she said, "Just look for an old Vermonter." Morse and his family are the seventh generation to sugar-farm here. It is an occupation exquisitely calibrated to the weather. "You need below freezing at night, above freezing during the day, and no south winds. Sap won't drip in a south wind," Burr's brother, Elliott, told me.

When I found Morse, who has wispy white hair and a gnomelike beard, he talked thoughtfully about the problems of the past few decades. For several years, warm winters had cut production by as much as half, causing a jump in the price of maple syrup. The last couple of winters have been fair to good, he said, which has reduced the alarm among many sugar farmers. But not for Morse.

"I think we've had an overage of bad seasons in the last 20 years," he said, standing in the syrup-packing room at the back of a wood house. "We weren't getting cold-enough temperatures at night. It's fluky weather. It can be too damn cold too." Morse told me that he's a political conservative, like many of the other sugar farmers he knows, and that when he tells them he thinks climate change is affecting their harvests, "they just put me down." But, he adds, "I see it as a human thing. God made the atmosphere with a certain recipe, and we've been adding another ingredient."

As for his governor, Morse said that Shumlin is a "nice guy, a really nice guy. I don't go much for politics, but there's not much I don't stand with him on." That terse endorsement is one indication of why Shumlin may find the success that other governors won't in the fight against climate change. Vermont's political culture is dominated more by Yankee pragmatism and town-meeting democracy than by partisan maneuvering. Liberal Shumlin appointed a prominent conservative to oversee the storm-recovery effort. And because of Vermonters' connection to the land, dealing with climate change is not as divisive an issue here as it is elsewhere.

Back in the governor's office, Shumlin sat up straight, recounting with a little shock what he'd seen from the helicopter after Irene. "It turned our teeny little brooks and streams into major rivers. Buildings were washed away," he said. "There's no question that's the future we face." Then, with practiced optimism, he switched gears. "But you're going to see an economic revival for the people who get this right."

Tristram Korten is a journalist who lives in Miami.

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats Program. Click here for more information on the Our Forests, Our Future campaign.

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