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Leaders Who Listen: The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Invites Staff Perspectives on a Shared Vision of a Land Ethic

Title VT post

At the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, staff in three different departments (Environmental Conservation; Fish and Wildlife; and Forests, Parks and Recreation) work together on a daily basis to advance the same mission, “…to draw from and build upon Vermonters’ shared ethic of responsibility for our natural environment, an ethic that encompasses a sense of place, community and quality of life, and understanding that we are an integral part of the environment and that we must all be responsible stewards for this and future generations.“

On a day-to-day basis, the tasks that end up on the to-do list of the staff charged with achieving this mission are diverse and, from department to department, may even be divergent. My own experience of doing mission-centric work in the conservation profession is that at times, we can be so task-focused that we often fail to see the “big picture” or look for opportunities to share commonality over the protection, management, and conservation of our natural world.

Kellie Merrell shares her perspectives on the land ethic. Kellie is a staffer in the Watershed Program at the Department of Environmental Conservation and is one of three ANR staff that were asked to share their perspectives to add to the day.

Kellie Merrell is with the Watershed Program at the Department of Environmental Conservation and is one of three ANR staff who shared perspectives on what a land ethic means to them.

When leadership at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources asked Aldo Leopold Foundation staff to come out and spend Earth Day with their staff facilitating conversations about how to foster a common land ethic that respects the different perspectives that exist both within staff themselves and among the constituents they serve, we were thrilled to take part.

Learning from Leopold

Aldo Leopold Foundation President and Executive Director Buddy Huffaker kicked things off a quote from Aldo Leopold related to the challenges of collaborating on a common mission when the strategies and desired outcomes are all over the map:

“It has always been admitted that conservation should be integrated … the theory is that one and the same oak will grow sawlogs, bind soil against erosion, retard floods, drop acorns to game, furnish shelter for song birds, and cast shade for picnics; that one and the same acre can and should serve forestry, watersheds, wildlife, and recreation simultaneously.”

Only half-joking, Buddy commented that within that quote, Aldo Leopold probably accurately captured elements of the very current and very real work plans of the 100+ ANR employees sitting in the room that day. Buddy went on to share that difficult though it may be to serve what at times may feel like very different and even conflicting interests, the need for integration and collaboration in conservation is quite clear. But collaboration is hard work… as Buddy said, “this IS rocket science!” But clearly, as humans continue to change the face and the health of the world in which we live, conservation professionals need to get better at what we do. This work begins with thoughtful engagement of our communities—both human and natural.

We used Leopold’s “Axe in Hand” essay from the November chapter of A Sand County Almanac as a jumping off point for smaller group discussions focusing on biases and how they inform our environmental values and shape our actions. After lunch, staff worked together to brainstorm a shared vision for Vermont, barriers to achieving that vision, and how they might open the lines of communication and build a culture of sharing, collaboration and connection within the agency to better meet that vision.

ANR staff discussion

Aldo Leopold Foundation Communications Coordinator Jeannine Richards leads a share-out of ideas on how to apply Leopold’s land ethic generated by the group.

Leaders who Listen

At various points throughout the day, we invited participants to share key questions or takeaways that the discussions raised for them. In particular, we asked folks to identify issues they would like to see the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources continue exploring as a “thinking community” together, beyond Earth Day. As I read through the feedback, I was really impressed by the insights and questions raised. One simply shared the comment that became the title of this article– “Leaders who listen.” The ANR staff that took part in the program were clearly willing to delve into the realm of rocket science—not only in terms of how they wanted to better serve the public, but how to work together better within the Agency. Here are a few of the comments.

ANR staff feedback on engaging with Vermonters

How do we better engage Vermonters in conversations about their values?

How do we strengthen our local communities to create change in how we interact with our environment?

How best can the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources serve to engage Vermonters in an effort to create a shared vision for Vermont?

ANR should make a concerted effort to connect with its stakeholders to better understand their values and biases. There is more that unites us than divides us.

ANR staff feedback on improving inter-Agency collaboration

"Can the Agency incorporate more time for reflection regarding our work? Should the Agency allow for more collaboration outside the Agency with communities, higher education, NGOs?"

I think our ‘thinking community’ needs to discuss the biases in our jobs. ANR needs to figure out how to allow time in our jobs to do the necessary work of engagement and collaboration to discuss values/biases around our land ethics. Open opportunity to coordinate within our programs. Time for coordination among and within the Agency and programs. Time to facilitate engagement of stakeholders of our programs.

ANR benefits from reflection (a meaning-making process) that includes cross-department dialogue. This can be a formal event (like today) or simply remembering to look up out of the “trenches” of day-to-day duties and reach out to others not collaborated with before.

We have a lot of work to do, but are starting from a good place. Lots of opportunity for working together across the Agency.

ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz (second from right) participated with staff in small group discussion exercises throughout the day.

At the close of the day, Deb Markowitz, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said, “The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources staff work towards a wide variety of goals, but all share a passion for the conservation of our natural resources. The words and ideas of Aldo Leopold as represented in the workshop setting inspire us to achieve great things and remind us of the importance of what we do collectively. Leopold was not only a skilled conservationist but he was also a passionate and articulate speaker and writer, reminding us that to be successful in our mission we have to connect with Vermonters on the values that they hold dear.”

I feel incredibly lucky any time I get to take part in a program that makes space for these kinds of ideas to emerge. Leopold’s land ethic idea grew out of a lifetime of observation, participation and reflection. Too often in the conservation world, we don’t have the luxury of time. But when we can find opportunities like these to take a step back from our day-to-day tasks and explore the questions we share, it can be pretty amazing.