Opinion: We must work together to define landscape aesthetics

I can’t argue with the opening statement in Stephanie Kaplan and Annette Smith’s opening statement (letter to the editor, March 23, 2015). They are spot on: “Vermont’s scenic beauty has always been highly valued both by Vermonters and by visitors to our lovely state.” I also can’t pretend to be an expert in the legal precedents of Act 250 and the Public Service Board, nor the history of the PSB’s relationship to Act 250. However, I can say it is time to adjust our definition of what constitutes an aesthetically pleasing landscape in Vermont.
We are, as Kaplan and Smith state about their own commentary, living in a time of extreme paradoxes. As Vermonters we value our working and natural landscapes — our view sheds, our access to forested trails to reach mountaintops, our small village settlements. Most of us have settled here because we value these pristine features, choosing to live within this postcard vs. just seeing it in photos or from the occasional vacation.
But, lest we forget, our settling here (whether in 1710 or 2010) resulted in a divvied up landscape. We built houses by carving up meadows for driveways, wells and septic systems. We removed trees (or even clear cut) rights of way for electric transmission lines to connect power and phone to our houses and businesses, as well as for roads connecting our homes to town. Heck, we even disrupted our rivers and fish habitat for an extensive system of dams from which we draw some of our power.
Depending upon your perspective, this pattern of settlement could be seen as a path of destruction in the natural landscape, or could be seen as one that created joyous small towns, multi-function forests and open spaces with working landscapes for all to enjoy. Whatever your viewpoint, the unintended consequence of our land use/settlement patterns is thus — we have to drive everywhere. We drive to work, school, the co-op or grocery store, the restaurant, doctor’s appointment, sports practice, the committee meeting. There are few sidewalks or safe shoulders on most of our rural roads to walk or bike to check on an elderly neighbor or bring our kids to play dates.
And when we drive, all of us — myself included — we are producing 46 percent (2009) of Vermont’s greenhouse gases. These greenhouse gases are causing climate change. We don’t see these greenhouse gas emissions or other air pollutants from burning fossil fuels — they are invisible. These gases do not directly assault our aesthetics but left unregulated they wreck havoc on our health and our weather — both of which have negative economic consequences. We cause climate change, a fact no longer on the fringe or scientifically debatable. The only hope we have to preserve our way of living is to get real about our energy use and how we produce that power.
We must shift to clean renewable energy sources, we must reduce our production of the other 54 percent of greenhouse gases from energy production that heats and lights our homes and that 46 percent from transportation. Energy efficiencies, renewables (wind and solar) and alternatives to the single occupancy fossil-fuel powered vehicle are all part of the solution. They allow Vermont to clean itself up and stop producing greenhouse gases within our boundaries.
Yes, we can see those solar farms and wind turbines on our farmlands and hillsides. Yes, we may need to slow down on our roads in order to accommodate safe bike lanes. And, yes, for a moment this can inconvenience us or arrest our aesthetic sensibility. But these infrastructure changes work to our advantage and long-term survival, the same way those methane-producing cows and sheep are working for us — providing food products and attracting tourist dollars to our communities.
There are many ways to address our voracious appetite for energy — Vermont is a leader in energy-efficiency best practices on the electricity side and making excellent progress generating an electric vehicle market transformation and charging infrastructure. But, we are behind the curve on proper investments to better manage our mobility in rural areas of the state to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel-burning vehicles.
And, we are on the edge of making it harder, if not impossible, to set up renewable energy production in state. We can generate our own clean electricity, but we have to get out of our own way. We need to change our subjective definitions of what is aesthetic, stop living in denial and start embracing a common goal that recognizes our shared values. We need to focus on the symbolism and beauty of a solar or wind farm (with two important non-negotiables — the power must stay in state and the power must be green).
We attach social, cultural and pre-conceived meanings of beauty to aesthetic ideals. Vermont’s economy is reliant upon the beauty of our maple forests — for tourist dollars and for the maple sugaring industry. Why does a wind turbine rising above a hillside or a solar farm glistening within a pastoral view shed offend people? Power poles and utility lines are a complete eyesore, but in our day-to-day we don’t see them. We see them as necessary blights and our brains adjust. Only when they show up in a photo do we realize how offending they can be (thank you Photoshop).
Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes with no one-size-fits-all definition. Solar and wind power directly connect to the survival of our maple forests and our tourism economy. If we can thoughtfully and plan-fully site our solar and wind farms and keep that power in state, Vermont preserves its unique aesthetic for generations to come.
We depend on utility lines to light up our homes and connect us to the world. We need renewable energy to travel on those lines and objective processes that are not biased by development dollars nor outdated definitions of what constitutes a beautiful landscape to allow for best practices to emerge to guide the siting of solar and wind farms. We need policies that are proactive and emerge from systems thinking.
Change is not easy, but change we must or risk losing our pristine landscapes, maple forests and working landscapes for which we are the long term stewards. There are still choices. We can choose to obstruct the path towards energy independence or we can ask ourselves to adjust our subjective view of what makes a landscape beautiful.
Nadine Canter Barnicle

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