In This State: A banker with a conscience makes his mark safeguarding Vermont’s landscape

John Ewing. Photo by Tom Slayton

John Ewing. Photo by Tom Slayton

Editor’s note: This week’s In This State column is by Tom Slayton, a Montpelier freelance writer and editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

BURLINGTON – When John Ewing came to Vermont as a young lawyer in 1956, the University of Vermont’s back yard was farmland, and the site of the Sheraton Hotel on Williston Road was a dairy farm.

Today, Route 2 in South Burlington is a 5-mile commercial strip, a sprawling array of gas stations, fast food outlets, motels and shops that goes all the way from UVM to the huge complex of big box stores at once rural Taft Corners in Williston.

Much of what drew Ewing to Burlington from northeastern Pennsylvania a half century ago has obviously changed.

Yet much of Vermont’s uniqueness  — away from the bright lights and traffic jams of South Burlington – survives. And although he has escaped the limelight, on purpose, John Ewing has for decades been a force in preserving the essence of Vermont.

He is, as one acquaintance has said, “a banker with a conscience.”

The forces of change are still at work, and Ewing, now 80, is still working to protect the Vermont he fell in love with.

“Vermont is still Vermont,” he said in a recent interview. “But there’s always going to be a struggle to keep it.”

The young attorney John Ewing arrived in that earlier, more rural Chittenden County looking for a job. He quickly found one with a local law firm, and subsequently had a successful career in legal work and banking. From 1972 to 1995, he was general counsel, vice president, secretary, and finally president of the Bank of Vermont.

That would seem to be enough for any man. Yet it is likely that Ewing will be longer remembered for his other career: as an advocate for the Vermont environment.

For more than 40 years he has worked effectively, often in unpaid, volunteer positions for causes ranging from the Vermont Audubon Society to the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (later Smart Growth Vermont), which he founded. There are few aspects of Vermont environmentalism that he has not been involved in.

Last fall that lifetime of environmental activism was recognized when the Vermont Natural Resources Council presented Ewing with the prestigious Art Gibb Award. VNRC Executive Director Brian Shupe said, in announcing the award: “John Ewing has helped us all understand the vast social and environmental costs of scattered, low-density development and the need to develop better models for Vermont. He also has an unusual talent for working with a wide variety of people and developing consensus.”

Ewing’s home sits perched above a sweeping bend of the Winooski River, just downstream from the Winooski Valley Park District, which he helped establish, some 40 years ago.

Burlington’s busy North End is not far away. But the river flows quietly along, much as it has for the past few millennia. It’s a tranquil, almost rural view.

The Winooski Valley Park District was one of the first projects he worked on, back in the 1960s as attorney for the Vermont Audubon Society. Development was already growing outward from Burlington, suburbanizing the lower Winooski Valley.

Ewing and UVM professor Fred Sargent became concerned that several important natural areas along the river would be lost, and began meeting with others who were similarly concerned. Today, the park district manages 16 parks in seven Chittenden County towns. Much of the lower Winooski remains naturally unspoiled.

Ewing was an early supporter of the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, working with both Hub Vogelmann, a founder of the Vermont chapter, and Robert Klein, its first and current executive director. He also helped found the Lake Champlain Land Trust, to help conserve environmentally sensitive islands in the lake. He wrote an important section of Act 250 that banned development above 2,500 feet. And he has served on the boards of many environmental organizations – perhaps most loyally, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, of which he was a member and staunch defender for 14 years.

“John is a banker with a conscience,” says Klein. “He was always helpful and always right there.

“He’s very modest,” Klein adds, “but not at all shy about going after something and making it happen.”

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Ewing’s law practice focused on municipal planning and zoning. He began representing several of the towns around Burlington as they developed town plans. “Always,” he noted, “with a mind toward some of the conservation elements.”

That work gave him knowledge of the development pressures that were shaping towns across Chittenden County. The experience would serve him well later, when, with Elizabeth Humstone, he established the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, which aimed to stem the growth of development in rural areas around Vermont’s small cities.

Although the battle to stop sprawl in South Burlington was largely lost, the organization is credited by environmentalists with helping to pass legislation encouraging growth in downtowns instead of open countryside.

“John understood and helped us understand the importance of maintaining the Vermont brand by preserving and enhancing the vitality of Vermont’s small cities and villages,” says Elizabeth Courtney, former executive director of VNRC. “His understanding of the connection between the economy and the environment, his love for this little state, and his quiet activism are lasting gifts to the Green Mountain State.”

Ewing’s current concerns? Ridgetop wind towers, a huge development complex planned for the Northeast Kingdom, and his continued crusade to convince Vermont’s movers and shakers that the environment and the economy do not have to be at odds, that they are, in fact, complementary.

“I don’t think it’s jobs against conservation,” he said. “You can grow, but in a way that respects the culture and the landscape of Vermont.”

The struggle is a reality, and Ewing remains on the front lines.

The latest hot environmental fight in Vermont is probably over industrial-scale wind towers on mountaintops, notably the 21 towers atop the Lowell range.

“I’m really opposed to huge wind towers in Vermont,” Ewing said. “Vermont doesn’t need them. They’re miniscule in terms of solving the problem. Georgia Mountain (in Chittenden County) might be a good site. But the Northeast Kingdom – terrible!”

It was typical of his approach that despite his own strong feelings on the subject, in 2012 he convened a group of environmental leaders from around the state, who called for a state commission to help resolve the issue in a reasoned way. Gov. Peter Shumlin’s appointment of a special siting commission, which is now meeting, was a result of the group’s work.

“Collaboration instead of fighting is what I prefer,” Ewing said.

Despite the immense pressures for change and unplanned development, Ewing is guardedly hopeful about the future of Vermont.

“I don’t think it (Vermont) has been lost. But, boy, it’s always touch and go,” he said, looking out at the snow-covered Winooski River.

“It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Vermont,” he added. “Everything I’ve done since my earliest years here has been motivated by the fact that I just love this state.”

Comments

  1. Bruce Post :

    Thank you, Tom, for highlighting John Ewing’s quiet but enduring efforts on behalf of Vermont’s environment.

    Back in the early 1960s, before the establishment of the more formalized environmental groups, a few individual Vermonters concerned with what was happening to our state came together on an ad hoc basis to fight some of the great environmental battles of that time. To name a few, they included Bob Spear, who helped found the Green Mountain Audobon Society and later the Birds of Vermont Museum, the late Shirley Strong, Hub Vogelmann, Fred Mold, Ottar Indridason, Fred Sargent, John Ewing and others (I apologize for not knowing all of them).

    They were willing to take on strong and powerful opponents. In the case of preserving Victory Bog, they had to contend with George Aiken and Phil Hoff, who supported damming up the bog; in their efforts to preserve Camels Hump and other highlands, they met resistance from Perry Merrill, who for years ran Forests and Parks as a personal fiefdom.

    The Camels Hump victory is impossible to underestimate, and its significance becomes apparent when considering Benton MacKaye’s trek through Vermont in 1900. MacKaye, the founder of the Appalachian Trail, climbed six peaks in the Green Mountains: Haystack, Stratton, Bromley, Killington, Camels Hump, and Mount Mansfield. While on Stratton, MacKaye got his inspiration for what became the Appalachian Trail. Today, only Camels Hump remains unspoiled by the ski industry and its increasingly rampant — and high-priced — real estate ventures.

    I believe the folks at Lowell Mountain are a valuable example of courage and conviction in the face of entrenched and wealthy interests with powerful friends in high places. I am glad that citizen activism on behalf of our environment is not dead; I am equally thankful for John Ewing and others like him who helped blaze the trail of environmental consciousness in Vermont.

  2. George, I’d like to shake your hand. It has occured to those of us seeking a moratorium on, and study of, big wind towers on our ridgelines, that we need to bridge the gap between those who seek to preserve our physical environment and those who seek to impact climate change. Only good can come from such a coalition. If you have the power to bring that about, I’d REALLY like to shake your hand.

  3. Randy Koch :

    Who is “George”? Aiken?

  4. John is a true Vermont hero.

  5. Robin Scheu :

    Thank you for writing this piece to recognize a very special Vermonter. I worked with John at Bank of Vermont and at Smart Growth Vermont. He is a man of integrity, who lives his values every day. This piece captures him well. Thank you, John, for all you’ve done for Vermont!

  6. Harriet Cady :

    As a born Vermonter I mourn the loss of the old timers values that made the hard working farmer that my grandfather and father were. On the other hand I angrily think of the do-gooders who have moved to my state and taken away their independence and life as a farmer.
    One thing I note is how they have worked to keep persons who owned and worked the land from having their rights to make financial decisions which would allow them to live independent of welfare.
    Yes save the Vermont countryside but not with all the envirnmental laws which have driven many farmers from the working of the land to the cities to make a living causing the very problems of development that is cited in the story. There’s a lot more to being a stewart of the land then just legally forcing persons who owned and paid for the land for generations to pay the bills while others zone and tell them what they can and cannot do with their property. My Dad told me our farmland was also for the enjoyment of all, hunting and swimming on the Lamoille River was always allowed as long as they didn’t abuse that use. I no longer can visit my family without thinking of those do-gooders who felt their rights were more important than those of the born Vermonter who loved his farm.

  7. Ralph Colin :

    Albeit that I am a converted “flatlander” having lived in Vermont for only eighteen years and having been an enthusiastic board member of the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (9 years), a board member of Green Mountain College (5 years)and as an 8-year commissioner of the District #8 Environmental Commission, I appreciate the necessity for striking a balance between individual property rights and the well-being of the interests of the population as a whole of those living in the state. I have the greatest respect for the amazing devotion to environmental issues in Vermont of John Ewing, truly one of the great citizens of this state. His accomplishments are legendary and there can be no doubt that he has been among the founders of the environmental interests with which we are endowed in Vermont today.

    Having said that and at the same time, I have absolute sympathy for the sensitivities expressed by Ms. Cady. The sentiments she describes are fully understandable. There needs to be an acknowedgement of the valid concerns which she and many others like her voice; attention must be paid to their interests. It is unfair to require that persons of a certain age be forced to turn their lives around without consideration being given to their immediate needs and to the honest toil and efforts that they and their families have put into the land, to say nothing of their particular way of living over long periods of time. We can’t just pull the rug out from under them overnight, as it were, and it is very important to give due respect and balance to their rights as opposed to widespread environmental practices. Let’s honor what they have achieved while simultaneously offering careful and sensitive planning for future land use in our state.

  8. Pam Arborio :

    Thank you Mr. Ewing for your mention of the Northeast Kingdom in your recent interview.
    The towns of Brighton, Newark and Ferdinand are the targets of out of state, foreign Industrial Wind developers that saw Sheffield and Lowell fail to realize the consequences of building turbines on their ridge lines and thought our towns would be easy pickings. As it turns out the citizens of Brighton and Newark have made it perfectly clear they DO NOT WANT the destruction of the Seneca’s and Hawk Rock by either the precursor Met towers or the 35-45 , 492′ tall IWT’s that the developers have said will follow. This area is supported by tourism, particularly ecotourism, and destroying this industry will be devistating for businesses and work like the domino principle, affecting the tax base, house values and more.
    Please continue to voice your objections to Industrial Wind Turbines in Vt., particularly in the NEK, we need all the help we can get to convince the PSB and Siting Board not to add another project here.

  9. Justin Boland :

    Thank you, Bruce Post, for a very tasty bit of history and perspective.

    • Bruce Post :

      You are welcome, Justin.

  10. Steve Wright :

    Thanks to Tom Slayton for his effective word portrait of John Ewing, one of my Vermont heroes.

    John attained that status with me when he took over the Chair’s position of the State Environmental Board after the ‘Senate Massacre’ of ’94.That was hardly a proud moment for the Senate. It was a potential disaster for the Environmental Board. John helped pick up the pieces and move on, helped lift a dispirited
    crew–I was a board member–and get us back to the work of adjudicating Act 250 appeals. Thanks John for your continuing service to Vermont.

  11. Although not reported in the article, John Ewing became Chair of the Environmental Board in early 1995, a critical time in the Board’s history. The prior spring, the Board’s position in the environmental community had been significantly compromised by the loss of three longstanding Board members who were not confirmed by a split vote of the Vermont Senate after Governor Howard Dean had appointed them to new terms. Board member Art Gibb agreed to take over as interim Chair until the end of the year. John Ewing, then President of the Bank of Vermont, decided it was time to retire from a long career in banking and took over the reins because he saw a need to repair relationships and he cared deeply about the program. Act 250 was not new to him since he had previously chaired the District #4 Environmental Commission in the mid to late 1980’s at a time when many large developments were being proposed in Chittenden County. This was just one of his many volunteer positions.

    With John Ewing as Chair, the Board regained its footing and Act 250 enhanced its reputation as one of the most respected land use development control laws in the country. He successfully re-established strong relationships within the development community and became a goodwill ambassador for the Act 250 program. Later that year, the 25th anniversary of Act 250 was celebrated in the well of the State House with speakers from all sides of the political spectrum. John Ewing’s tenure at the Board represented an important chapter in the history of the Act 250 program, the program benefitted greatly from John’s leadership skills as well as his ability to lift the morale of those who served with him.

    Given all of his contributions to Vermont over the past decades, I cannot think of any individual who is more deserving of the Art Gibb Award than John Ewing. It should also be known that John was named Citizen of the Year by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce in 1997 near the end of his tenure at the Board. He is truly a humble person and greatly respected by all who know him.

    Thank you, John, for all that you have done for the State of Vermont.

    Michael Zahner, former Executive Director, Vermont Natural Resources Board

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