Breakups can be painful for a middle or high school student. But when Vermont Land Trust (VLT) ecologist Allaire Diamond met students to talk about breakups, she wasn’t quite addressing the dating scene.

“We’re learning about forest blocks today, focusing on the impact that forest fragmentation has on wildlife,” said Allaire about her workshop, titled Breaking Up Hurts – Why Forest Blocks Matter to Nature and People. Forest blocks are areas of contiguous forest and other natural habitats (like rivers, ponds, cliffs, and rock outcrops) that are not broken up by roads, development, or agriculture. “Large forest blocks are essential for healthy habitat and wildlife diversity,” she said.

Allaire was one of more than 20 presenters at the Youth Environmental Summit (YES) held on November 1 by the 4-H Club and University of Vermont. The annual conference offers sixth to 12th graders the opportunity to learn about environmental issues and get involved in their communities.

Allaire started the workshop by assigning a native animal — including river otters, moose, scarlet tanagers, and spotted salamanders — to each student, and instructed them to move into an outlined area that represented undeveloped land. As Allaire and VLT staff added “roads” and “houses,” introduced non-native plants, and let a homeowner’s cat run wild in the area, different species were affected. For example, an invasive plant (which can snuff out native plants by using up resources) was toxic to butterfly larvae, the house cat killed native songbirds, and the moose was hit by a car. 

“[Forest] fragmentation is a big problem in Vermont. We have a lot of forest, but a lot of it is divided,” explained Allaire. She added that a bobcat’s habitat is about 15 square miles, while a spotted salamander only roams about 600 feet from its birthplace. Homes can have a “wildlife shadow” that can extend much deeper into the surrounding land than just the house site and yard; for example, remember the previously mentioned house cat or the non-native plant that was introduced by homeowners.

Student draws land use on projected map.

Students were then challenged to think about development and its potential impacts. They drew out their proposed land uses — including homes, roads, hiking trails, and hunting camps — on a map. “There are a lot of different choices with a lot of different impacts, and they all have trade-offs,” said Allaire.

This is one issue that VLT staff think about: protecting land to support wildlife habitat, clean water, and healthy forests. Allaire used the Okemo Wildlife Corridor as an example. The 100-mile corridor is part of a 346-acre property in Mount Holly that connects the southern part of the Green Mountain National Forest with Okemo State Forest. VLT is working with Mount Holly Conservation Trust and the state of Vermont to protect the area, which would offer uninhibited forestland for wildlife to safely roam, reside, find food, and raise young.

The youth summit is an annual event that reaches more than 200 students. “It’s essential because Vermont youth are the next generation of conservationists,” said Allaire. While she said that her topic is intuitive, it’s not something that students are necessarily exposed to. “Having the moment to think about the impact on wildlife, it’s a click in their brains that stays with them,” she said.

The mission of YES is to inspire, encourage, and prepare youth for a life of environmental responsibility, service, and leadership by increasing awareness and knowledge of environmental issues and fostering leadership skills. Other presentation topics included environmental careers, reducing cafeteria waste, and a microplastics survey.

Left, student with scarlet tanager; right, student raises hand to ask question.

Ecologist Allaire Diamond and her presentation on forest blocks.

VLT table with leaf samples.