Summary article by Ryan Morra, University of Vermont
On the concluding day of the first inaugural International Conference on Environmental Diplomacy and Security, panelists and participants boarded the Spirit of Ethan Allen II for a tour of Lake Champlain and to hear from a final diverse group of stakeholders in Vermont’s natural resources. After spending the weekend hearing success stories and strategies for international diplomacy, the panel re-focused the conference on environmental efforts happening in the Green Mountain State. Representing the University of Vermont was Mary Watzin, dean of the Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources. Representing industry was Kerrick Johnson, Vice President for External Affairs of Vermont Electric Power Company (Velco). Speaking on behalf of the citizenry was Annette Smith, Executive Director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. Concluding the panel with a keynote address was Deb Markowitz, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The conversation among the panelists was a lively discussion where each recognized the merits of one another’s positions and agreed that cooperation was the key to moving forward with accomplishing conservation goals for the state.
Dean Watzin began the panel by discussing the role of science in fostering cooperation among citizens and policymakers. She repeatedly asserted that science will never be the sole basis for environmental decision making, but that science must inform any debate regarding natural resources. Even with scientific data, communities and lawmakers may find that economic, cultural, or historic values make take precedence – and that is okay! A central way to getting citizens to understanding the science behind environmental decisions is to involve them in the monitoring process, suggested Watzin. Kerrick Johnson of Velco agreed that it is a particular challenge to make “grid science” understandable to the public, but it is important to make sure that Vermonters understand why and how the power company constructs its transmission lines. He shared a successful story of working with the public on energy issues, and supports companies in being as transparent as they can when engaging with the public. Annette Smith added to this by noting that consultants from other private companies agree with Johnson’s sentiment. Doing more at the front end to engage the public on a prosed project will actually save time and money on the back end by avoiding unnecessary litigation. While Annette Smith has found that it is sometimes hard to get some companies to the decision-making table, those companies that have a “community-based stakeholder process” often have far better public relations and support for their projects. Vermont legislator Kesha Ram noted in a question from the audience that diversity of community perspectives, particularly from marginalized groups such as the Abenaki need to be realized (Abenaki representative Louise Lampman-Larivee was invited but could not attend due to illness).
Secretary Markowitz brought together the main points of all the panelists in her keynote address. She is very much in favor of streamlining public processes so that no decision is made without first consulting as many potentially affected citizens as possible. She agreed that science must be brought into the process, and she would like to see undergraduate and graduate students researching the specific questions needed to inform the public on a particular issue. Dean Watzin agreed that while scientists will probably assert that more research can be done, it will be up to the public to decide when to act. Secretary Markowitz supported this idea by adding that government can help shape the public-private sector conversations through better regulatory processes that will bring as many communities into the process as possible. All four panelists agreed that academia, industry, government and citizens each have a role to play, and cooperation among those entities will ultimately lead to the best decisions on how to manage Vermont’s natural resources.