CHAPTER 5: Communication and Engagement

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How your conservation commission communicates and engages with your community matters a great deal. Your image and standing within the community require regular attention and care.

5-1 Establishing and Keeping a Positive Image

First, focus on ensuring that the conservation commission is perceived as a good partner for others to work with. If your group is new and still getting going, make the time to discuss how every commission member should contribute to maintaining that positive image. As noted in other chapters, clear communication with partners, such as the planning commission and Selectboard, will go a long way towards reinforcing your image as a thoughtful and reliable partner in town affairs.

Bat Houses Building Project: Starting in June 2017, a community volunteer, Phillip Wilson provided background information and building plans for a Conservation Commission sponsored bat house project. Phil built two prototypes and prepared literature for a public presentation which he gave in July at a well attended community program. On October 7, 2017 volunteers and Conservation Commissioners joined Phil to build and paint 12 bat houses. Several smaller bat houses were donated to the project. In March, siting locations on town-owned property were evaluated for optimum use by bats, selected, and permission to install requested. Approval to use the sites was requested and approved. Finishing touches were added to the first four houses to be installed. By mid-May installation could begin. Read More

Second, evaluate whether your image is in touch with the full range of community values. A common critique of conservation commissions is that they can be a disconnected from the broader needs and realities of the community, only focusing on environmental values. A common friction point is where commission members’ opinions are at odds with beliefs held by others in your community. As a starting place, every commission member should read the town plan; because the town planning process must go through a process for incorporating public input, the town plan is likely to represent a wider range of perspectives that exist in the community.

A common friction point is where commission members’ opinions are at odds with beliefs held by others in your community. Conservation commissions should, to the best of their abilities, try to connect with those people and understand how they feel. The more in-touch and aware your conservation commission is with these different perspectives, the more you can find overlap between your conservation goals and the needs of all community members.

5-2 Crafting your Message

In Chapter 4, you learned about how to develop a guiding purpose for the conservation commission. This was the process where you figured out why your commission exists. As part of that process, all members of the conservation commission need to develop a strong understanding of what the mission and work of the conservation commission is. That understanding of shared purpose is at the core of your basic message. You should be able to articulate in a sentence of two why your conservation commission exists and the kinds of work you engage in. Make sure the language is accessible and not overly complex. You want folks to easily understand what you do and be interested in learning more. This is the message you send out into the world. For example, the Middletown Springs Conservation Commission describes itself this way:

Since 2000, the Middletown Springs Conservation Commission has worked with our community to learn about and sustain the natural resources of our town. Conservation commission initiatives include stewardship of the town forest, Sullivan Educational Woods; educational programs and nature walks for the community; monitoring and controlling invasive species; contributing to town planning efforts; coordinating Green Up Day, and monitoring and assessing the town’s rivers, wildlife, wetlands, and upland natural communities.

                The Bolton Conservation Commission articulates its mission in fewer words:

The Bolton Conservation Commission’s role is to promote stewardship of natural and cultural resources in our town and to advise the Select Board, Planning Commission, and Development Review Board on matters relating to the environment. 

Beyond its core message, the conservation commission will periodically need to develop more targeted messaging around specific projects. If, for example, you are kicking off a new project to address the threat of invasive plants, you will need to understand how to communicate with different groups why this project is relevant and worthwhile. For example, think about how a business might engage with invasive species and think about the message you would use in conversation with this business. Perhaps you might focus on how invasives can quickly dominate the vegetation around a home or business and become hard to manage. By removing invasives and replacing with native vegetation, the business could also share that with customers as an example for why they are a good community partner. 

To promote the health of the Winooski River, the Montpelier Conservation Commission (MCC) capitalized on an opportunity to work with a local business to reduce stormwater from its parking lot. In 2019, the MCC partnered with Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU) to install a rain garden at VSECU’s Montpelier headquarters. The new rain garden helps the business reduce its parking lot’s stormwater contribution to the Winooski River, helps demonstrate the businesses’ environmental values to town residents, visitors, and customers.

Finally, as you design messaging to reach different groups, focus on creating fun and engaging experiences for people to interact with your topic. If you are trying to get parents and families involved in improving water quality in your community, consider partnering with the recreation department to provide free swimming lessons at the town beach to underscore the importance of clean water. Try bringing your aspirations of protecting farmland to the town fair, or the farmers market, where you can interact with more people working and living in the agricultural community.

5-3 Creating a Communications Plan

Sharing the work of your conservation commission is an important part of building support and credibility. As you plan, implement, and complete projects, make sure that you are sharing stories about that process with the community. We often hear about the beginning or end of the project, with far too few updates on the progress and the interesting twists and turns along the way. As you plan a project, be sure to brainstorm the messaging that will go along with different phases of the project. All of these exercises can be wrapped into the conservation commission’s Communications Plan. The Communications Plan identifies:Who you want to reach; (list each audience)

  • How you will reach them;
  • How often you will reach out;
  • Guidelines for the “voice” and “tone” of your communications material.

Knowing how to reach people in your unique community is essential, because every community connects in slightly different ways. For some towns, residents gather at central places like the general store, local café, farmers market, or transfer station. In others, community discussions transpire online on various platforms. Your messaging should be designed to match with those different venues and each of the various audiences listed in your communications plan. Long-term residents of town can help identify where the old-timers gather, while younger community members might provide insights to how young people or families are communicating with each other. Ideally, you are distributing your messages in multiple venues to reach as diverse a group of constituents as possible.

The Creation of the Lowell Community Nature Trail: In Lowell, VT, a student at the Lowell Graded School named AJ Sicotte had a growing interest in building a walking trail through the woods behind his school that would be open to the entire town. After beginning clearing the trail himself, AJ gained help from the community when Bob Hawk, the linkage coordinator for the Staying Connected Initiative (SCI) met with the Lowell School principal, Scott Boskind, and two teachers from the school’s science department, Judy Ide and Michael Brooks. Read More

As you broadcast your message, don’t forget to take advantage of traditional media, such as radio, TV, bulletin boards, and word of mouth. If your town has a newspaper, get to know the editors and the ground rules for submitting articles, opinion pieces, or press releases. If you plan a public event, make sure that your local reporter or editor knows about it, as they may be interested in covering the event. Oftentimes, local reporters are keen to cover interesting goings-on in town.

Recognize that in the digital age, many people are likely to hear about your projects online. If your town maintains a website, find out who maintains the website and request a dedicated page or section of the town website for the conservation commission. Items you may want to add to your website include:

  • Names and terms of commission members;
  • Regular meeting times and locations;
  • Purpose or mission statement;
  • A brief paragraph about your commission history;
  • Archived agendas and minutes (unless your town uses a separate portal to store these documents);
  • Digital copies of reports, inventories, and other related documents;
  • Maps or links to online map portals;
  • Good quality pictures of projects and events you have completed.

Keeping your web presence up to date, organized, and well-curated help create a positive impression of the conservation commission. To keep web materials current, designate a conservation commission member as the point person for making or requesting updates and changes to the website. For a good example of a conservation commission that is using its website to engage community members with its Trail Camera Project, visit Cornwall’s Conservation Commission website.

In addition to the website, your conservation commission can benefit from engaging in digital communication. Many Vermonters stay abreast of community events through social media on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and others. Many communities have spirited local discussion on Front Porch Forum. These are useful places to announce events, distribute information, post requests for volunteers, and more. When used well, social media sites are productive avenues for staying engaged with your community; however, take care with social media, as the dialogue and exchange of comments can easily become politicized or impolite.

Set ground rules for how your conservation commission engages with social media, which roll up under the broader communications plan. The communications plan should include guidelines on your intended “voice” and “tone.” For example, one group’s communications plan encourages a voice that is “earthy, energetic, friendly, fun, and trustworthy.” When members are writing articles or preparing presentations, another conservation commission member should provide edits and suggestions to ensure the tone and content reinforce that positive image.

Return email and voicemails in a timely manner. If you cannot respond to an inquiry within a reasonable amount of time, send that person a brief note acknowledging that you received their message, are considering it, and then share a realistic timeframe for getting back to them. This will help people feel heard without placing an unreasonable expectation on conservation commission members for returning correspondence.

Finally, designate one or more conservation commission members to take charge of maintaining regular communication with the public. One of these people can be responsible for responding to general inquiries, while passing on specific inquiries to the appropriate conservation commission member. As your group and your work evolves, update the Communications Plan as needed. Rotate members in and out of this role, just as you would for other commission roles.

5-4 Visioning & Community Engagement

Once a conservation commission has crafted a core message and created a communications plan, the Commission is better suited to design community engagement activities. Some of these activities should address visioning—the process of helping a community articulate a future worth seeking; Other activities should address participation—reaching numerous people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The two are intertwined: the more diverse group engaged, the more likely the visioning will suit the full range of community needs.


One type of visioning exercise conservation commissions can engage in is helping their community better understand its values, and where those different values occur on the landscape. Community Values Mapping is an exercise designed to gather a group of community members to map out different places that they love, using different categories, such as Recreation, History, Scenery, Ecology, Hunting, Fishing, and more. Once the initial maps have been drawn, the mapped results can be aggregated to show where different values overlap, and where different user groups share common ground. For example, a forest block delineated as having both a recreation value and a hunting/fishing value indicates broader support for keeping that forest intact. It may also help communities anticipate potential conflicts, such as disagreements among different recreational user groups.

Community Value Mapping in the Northern Green Mountains: In 2009, Cold Hollow to Canada Forest Link Project, the Staying Connected Initiative, and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department hosted a gathering which brought together community members from the towns of Enosburgh, Montgomery, and Bakersfield. The goal of this meeting was to compile a multitude of community-value maps created at the event into a single map which depicted areas of high community value overlap. In total there were over 90 community members who attended the event, and each participant was randomly assigned to a group based on a colored dot marker on their meeting agenda. Each of the participants was asked the question: what do you love about living in your town? The participants were encouraged to include many aspects of the town in their responses and were not limited to natural resources elements. Each group was provided with an aerial map of the region which featured roads and contour lines so that they could orient themselves and find town features and landmarks. Participants were given a marker to circle areas they favored, such as the quietness of a certain location, a scenic vista, a good hunting spot, snowmobile trails. Additionally, participants were encouraged to share stories about their favorite places in town and these details were recorded by the group facilitator. Read More

Monkton conducted its Community Values Session online during the COVID-19 pandemic using a combination of software to enable video-chat (Zoom) and online collaborative mapping (Miro). In addition to the online mapping exercise, the conservation commission posted maps in a central town location and encouraged people to map their values individually, but in an outside, safe manner consistent with public health guidance.  Other conservation commissions may find it advantageous to conduct a community values mapping session in a “hybrid” mode – combining an in-person event with supplemental online opportunities to engage more people.

St. Albans Main Street Revitalization: In 2009 the city of St. Albans started developing a master plan for the redesign and revitalization of Main Street which included Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI). This redesign included new sidewalks, street lamps, roadways, and tree planting alongside Main Street. The city broke ground in October 2012 after many years of developing a vision and creating a master plan. The master plan was a collaboration of public and private sector individuals with various experiences addressing the redesign. Read More

A similar process called Community Heart & Soul, is a process that engages the entire population of a town in identifying what they love most about their community, what future they want for it, and how to achieve it. Funded by the Orton Family Foundation, this process has been used by the towns of Canaan and Essex.


In many towns, only a relatively small group of residents participate in town events. It can become predictable who is going to show up for public meetings as it’s often the same cast of characters. This presents a real problem as those that attend don’t necessarily represent the full diversity of opinions across the town. Many towns have experienced this phenomenon: they take public input from a small group in the early stages of a proposed rule change and then are later blindsided by adverse public opinion when the rule is about to be finalized. One might ask, “Where were you when we were developing this proposed change? Why did we have to go through all those steps before more residents got involved?”  Engagement beyond this cast of likely characters is key to broadening representation of the town as a whole and not getting blindsided with end-of-the-process feedback that scuttles forward movement. Engagement is also key to gaining access to potential volunteers that aren’t already maxed out.  Commissions should take a fresh look at how events are advertised and that the events that are planned are interesting and exciting.  ) It’s important to ask the questions, who are we reaching and who is showing up? Who is left out of that? How can we make input more accessible to them? Barriers like language, time, child care, accessibility of information (is it easily understandable by someone who is not deep in the environmental world; is it easy to find online)? Online input as well as in person feedback are both critical aspects.

Crown Jewel Walks: For the past few years, the Thetford Conservation Commission (TCC) has asked select landowners if TCC members might walk their properties.The purpose of these “Crown Jewel Walks” is both to offer information to Thetford residents, but also to help the Conservation Commission know what properties in town are truly special.The walks usually include several TCC members who are particularly knowledgeable about flora and fauna and can point out interesting features of someone’s land. After each walk, commission members send the landowner a compiled inventory of various resources for their reference. Landowners do not have to profess interest in conserving their land to be offered a Crown Jewel Walk although it is hoped that they might consider this option in the future. Read More

One of the main barriers to participation is that many people cannot attend town events due to scheduling conflicts and family obligations. Consider holding “open office hours,” at a variety of different times. These sessions provide a time and place for community members to drop by and engage with commission members, explore ongoing or proposed projects, and voice concerns or questions. For example, the Town of Jericho held office hours during its process creating the Jericho Natural Resources Overlay Zoning District. The town of Waitsfield tabled at the local farmers market, a convenient weekend gathering place, to encourage people to engage with their ongoing projects.

Providing food makes meetings and forums more fun, especially at night meetings that interrupt normal dinner hours. The Putney Conservation Commission made its regular meetings into potlucks. Sharon Conservation Commission hosted “Dump and Donuts,” where conservation commission members brought donuts to the transfer station to engage with residents taking care of business on a weekend morning. The Town of Panton held a Pizza for Planning party as part of an effort to solicit more participation in its town plan update. In all these cases, the food facilitates a feeling of community togetherness.

Photo Credit: Bernard Paquette 2018

Engaging youth brings vibrancy and energy to your commission. It is their future you are working to conserve! Consider adding a youth seat to your commission. Youth members, often high-school aged, can serve on a conservation commission. For several years, Shelburne has included youth members on boards, commissions, and committees, where they hold non-voting seats. Manchester, Montpelier and other towns also allow youth members.

IIncreasingly, Vermonters are working to make their communities more welcoming to more people. While towns have developed a certain way of doing things, the expectation that, “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” isn’t necessarily the most inclusive path of moving forward. Conservation commissions should take a fresh look at their own operations and other aspects of town governance and ask who in the community benefits and who is being left out. Decisions about what time of day the commission meets or the format of the meeting can make involvement difficult for some town residents and easier for others. Conservation commissions need to have a true understanding of who makes up their community and ensure the CC’s work reflects the community’s racial and socio-economic diversity. More than that, marginalized voices need to be better heard in municipal government. So, conservation commissions are tasked with the job of balancing the needs and desires of many different community members to meet the goals of the town and the commission..

Nulheganaki Tribal Forest: The Nulhegan Abenaki took ownership of the first Nulhegan tribal forestland in 2012. The 65-acre parcel, located in Barton, Vermont is an economic, educational and cultural resource for the tribe, which worked with the Vermont Land Trust and the Sierra Club to acquire the land. The Vermont Land Trust holds the conservation easement. The forest is currently a working sugarbush with a fully equipped sugarhouse and a well-developed system of forest roads. It is estimated that the property can support at least 3,000 taps. The tribe intends to continue this activity as a cooperative-tribal effort. The tribe also intends to pursue small scale, organic, forest cover gardening for limited cash crops. They will use this forest sustainably to provide elders and low income families with supplemental home heating firewood. Tribal members will use this land to sustainably hunt game as allowed for by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. They also plan to use small scale traditional Abenaki agricultural methods in existing clearings in order to provide vegetables and fruits for the community, and to sustainably gather traditional Abenaki medicines. Finally, the tribe, through the Nulheganaki Youth Program, hopes to use this land as a location for their tribal youth to be educated in the ways of nature, the outdoors, and traditional practices.

One exciting initiative designed to address inequities in conservation is a “tree equity” partnership between municipalities, the Vermont Urban & Community Forestry Program, and the Arbor Day Foundation. The program provides free trees to people whose urban location, health, or income puts them at risk of heat-related illness—ensuring that historically marginalized community members can enjoy the many benefits of urban trees, such as home-cooling, stormwater retention, air quality improvement, property value increase, and more.

One good tool in thinking about more inclusive and democratic governance can be found in the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. Furthermore, working with Black, Indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) community members is necessary to further conservation work in Vermont that serves the full range of values and needs in this state. See Vermont Releaf Collective as one example.

Above all, engagement should have an element of fun. Of course, some conservation topics are serious business, but there are many opportunities to focus on fun, enjoyable opportunities for people to connect around a conservation topic. For example, the Montpelier BioBlitz, conducted every 10 years, combines a city-wide citizen science effort with fun events such as tree climbing and a slip n’ slide station. Billed as a “once in a decade jamboree for Nature,” this event hits the sweet spot for combining science, conservation, and fun. See all the case studies in this book for more ideas on successful engagement and other stories in AVCC’s Success Stories Library. Community Workshop offers a variety of engagement ideas and additional services. The Agency of Natural Resources Environmental Leadership Training Unit 2: From Planning to Action also focuses on engagement ideas. Look here for current listings.

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