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Natural rights for Shaftsbury forests, fields, and rivers

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By Rob Moir

· 4 min read

The solar energy barons came to Shaftsbury victorious, winning the bidding war against its families to buy 182 acres of the farmhouse, fields, and forests saddled between Hale Mountain and Harrington Cobble on Holy Smoke Road.  No less than 104 acres will be cleared and scraped to install laydown yards, a heavy-duty vehicle access road, gravel wetlands, and space for solar panels for 20 MW electric generation. 

Climate activists cheered. “These big sugar maples must die so other maples may live.” They overlooked the fact that when more energy is generated, it is always consumed, like adding more closets to a house. 

To the property owners go the spoils. American laws are written so that property owners can do as they please (once environmental regulators are satisfied that actions had good intentions). Only adjacent property owners have legal standing to speak to the extent they are impacted.  In a town of less than 4,000 residents, at least two abutting families are speaking out in opposition. 

The town, unable to accept or reject the overall project, responded by proposing a screening ordinance that would make the industrial area less visible. The developer said they would leave the forest swath alone along the Northeast property boundary. Besides, those trees would not be casting shade on the solar panels.  

Some of Vermont’s largest sugar maples, white ash, red oak, birches, black cherry, and ironwood, will be lost. One maple had a diameter at breast height of 7 feet 11 inches. Three maple boles growing from one stump indicate a maple over 200 years old.  Two oak trees fused as one was measured at 11 feet 2 inches, and a white ash at 5 feet 3 inches. 

The surprising size and vigor of these rich northern hardwoods are due to the bedrock geology of the Taconic Mountains. Here are limestone, dolostone, and marble layers, sources of calcium and magnesium protected by shale and slate. The gently rolling topography enhances nutrient-rich soils to stay in place to become deep, moist, and compost-like.

At least 41.8 acres of forest, mostly old-growth forest, will be cut, stumped, and scraped to prepare the way for heavy equipment to build gravel wetlands at the far corners. This forest, with wildlife and water-storing benefits for Vermonters, is pulling down 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year to reduce the carbon burden in the atmosphere. 

To turn a profit, at least 104 acres of fields and forests will be removed. The soil will be scraped and stored in berms where carbon will gas out.  Soil life dies and becomes lifeless dirt. 

Outside the areas of disturbance, there is no management plan for the receiving watersheds to repair or remove sediment. There is a high potential for sediment deposition in wetlands and streams. Their report does not say how long they will operate in the future. The project has been engineered to meet the water quality standards, which provide treatment for one-inch storm events. The standard is based on the history of rainfall in the area. The project does not consider the increasing volume of rain suffered by Vermont in recent years or prepare for what is to come.

In Williamsburg, Massachusetts, a four-megawatt, 17,000-panel solar energy array was being installed on 18.5 acres when, on January 12, 2018, scattered showers brought 1.95 inches of rain. Mismanaged stormwater altered approximately 97,000 square feet of protected wetlands and more than 41,000 feet of riverfront area and smothered the West Branch of the Mill River. Wildlife habitats and vegetation were destroyed, and the flow of the tributaries into the river changed.

Shaftsbury can give legal rights to its forests, fields, and rivers when challenged at their expense by profiteers. Tamaqua (population 7,000) in Pennsylvania's coal region was tired of seeing the Little Schuylkill River turn an oily yellow-orange. The last straw was when the state invited companies from out-of-state to dump industrial and wastewater sludge, along with fly ash, in the old mine pits of Tamaqua, and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it was not harmful. 

To not be abused as property, as slaves and women once were, forests and other ecosystems must be recognized as having rights, which is what abolitionists and suffragists accomplished for slaves and women. 

Forced by the people of the community, the local government of Tamaqua passed an ordinance that recognized ecosystems as having legally enforceable rights and made it unlawful for corporations to interfere with those rights to exist and flourish. The dumpers sped by Tamaqua and headed to the community of Rush next door. Rush passed their own laws of natural rights to forests, fields, and rivers, and the barons moved on. 

On Holy Smoke Road, named for the view, it remains to be seen whether the farm and stands of old-growth hardwood forests will be replaced by an industrial solar energy project to benefit nonlocal investors.   

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rob Moir, PhD, is Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute and Director of Global Warming Solutions IE-PAC in Cambridge Massachusetts. He is an educator, scientist, and advocate with a proven history of institutional management and climate policy success.

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