Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ric Cabot, who is president & CEO of Cabot Hosiery Mills/Darn Tough Vermont, and Shelby Semmes, the Northern New England area director of The Trust for Public Land.
Vermont’s mountains, trails, lakes, rivers, and woods have long provided the strong foundation upon which our community and economy are built. This couldn’t be more apparent than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our parks and public lands have seen record visitation rates as recreation has provided essential mental and physical well-being and safe places to be during this difficult time. Robust sales of hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, and hunting equipment in our local businesses has also shown the promise for the outdoors as an important driver of our economic recovery.
As our nation continues to face both a public health and economic crisis, Vermonters can utilize the outdoors as a strategy for the state’s future prosperity. Prior to Covid-19, Vermont’s outdoor recreation economy was already growing faster (+15%) than the overall Vermont economy (+3%), between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. If we invest further in the parks and public lands that provide quality recreation opportunities to all Vermonters and visitors, the economy that relies on places to play – or to just take a fresh breath – will rebound stronger than before. This will enable Vermont’s employers to better support and sustain our communities through their ability to continue providing quality jobs. And, as a renewable resource, an accessible Vermont landscape establishes a key competitive advantage into our future.
Fortunately, Vermont is poised to expand recreation access in every community thanks to Vermont’s U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, who were among the congressional champions that ensured the recent passage of the federal Great American Outdoors Act. This landmark bill fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), providing a unique opportunity to bring millions more federal dollars to Vermont, potentially as much as a 51% increase over prior years, to create and develop local parks, open space, trails, boat launches, and ball fields. However, for this money to be put to work toward equitable access to the outdoors, we must sustain and grow funding through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to match the federal investment. Since 1988, VHCB’s funding has protected special places across the state beloved for their recreation and community value — places like the Catamount Community Forest, Ascutney Mountain and Newport’s Bluffside Farm Recreational Trail. This year alone, VHCB investments will ensure permanent public access to more than 7,600 acres with miles of 4-season, multi-use trail systems. With Vermont’s community health and rural economies at stake, it is now more important than ever to ensure our state maximizes investments in the great outdoors. We applaud Vermont officials for their support of LWCF and urge state lawmakers to fully fund VHCB, showing a commitment to continue investing in our communities where we live, work and play, leading to a healthy and economically vibrant future for Vermont.