NORTHEAST KINGDOM, Vermont - "Around here, everyone has been scrambling forever," says Peggy Day Gibson, director of the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, population 904. She stands outdoors in the marrow-chilling mist of a November morning. "Most employment is seasonal, so people work two or three jobs, and they may be self-employed on top of that."
The Old Stone House Museum, a granite edifice built as a grammar-school dorm in the early 19th century, houses the collections of the Orleans County Historical Society. It closes in winter, when Gibson turns to her business of selling locally made Christmas wreaths.
For more than a decade, residents of the Northeast Kingdom, as Vermonters call the rural northeastern corner of the state, have watched manufacturing dwindle, timbering shrink, and farms fail. The three counties that make up the Kingdom are the state's poorest, but they are rich in other ways: Abundant mountains, lakes, and forests offer something to enjoy in every season.
To some locals, beefing up tourism seems like a no-brainer. But others, including Gibson, urge caution. "It would be great to have a steadier stream of tourists, but this place is not like Disneyland," she says. "We'd like to attract more people who want to take part in our outdoor lifestyle, eat at our restaurants, and stay in our B&Bs. We just don't want to be overwhelmed by them."
The staff of the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, in Washington, D.C., shares that concern. The organization conducted a survey of global tourism destinations in 2003, appointing a panel of 500 travel and tourism professionals, including specialists in sustainable tourism, to rate 115 popular tourist destinations around the world according to how well residents had been able to protect their cultural and natural attractions. Vermont received the highest rating in the United States.
State officials, business leaders, and educators worked with the center to launch the country's first geotourism program in the Northeast Kingdom. (Jonathan Tourtellot, the center's director, coined the word "geotourism" in 1997 to mean "tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place.")
"Geotourism is a commitment from within a community to certain values which can guide our development and growth," says Gloria Bruce, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association. "These values guide the types of businesses we encourage, and where we build them. This isn't just putting the National Geographic logo on something."
From 2005-07, the center and association worked with local communities to pinpoint what was unique about the region. Residents nominated attractions to appear on a new visitor map, and National Geographic whittled the list to 40. The result is the Geotourism MapGuide for the Northeast Kingdom.
The map features attractions as diverse as educational organizations, historical museums, and artisans' shops. People who work at four other featured sites recently reflected on the geotourism project.
"People who have lived in the shadow of a mountain all their lives but have never hiked to the top of it, lack the perspective that visitors can bring to a place," says Luke O'Brien, director of educational programs at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston. The nonprofit center offers scientific, educational, and conservation service programs. Year-round, residents and visitors can sign up for hikes, Kingdom Coffeehouse music nights, moonlight paddles and woods walks, and alternative-energy workshops.
O'Brien hopes the geotourism program "will improve the quality of life for people who live here."
That quality of life is what finally prompted Albert Huizing and his family to move to Westmore (population 323) from New Jersey, after spending vacations on Lake Willoughby for 16 years. Last March he bought the Northern Exposure Country Store on the tip of the lake, which boasts a deli as well as tourist merchandise and locally made products.
Huizing says he understands geotourism, but as a business owner, he's focusing on networking to get out the word about what the area offers. "Around here a lot of businesses are too small to do much marketing," Huizing says. "Old technology isn't very effective when places are so spread out. So I'm trying to start a network of Wi-Fi hot spots like the one we have here."
A few customers are starting to come in with laptops. Meanwhile, Huizing is dreaming up events "to create memories for visitors," like the ones that sustained him between vacations.
In Averill, within a mile of the Canadian border, Quimby Country Lodge & Cottages has been mingling lakes and memories since 1894. Joan Binns, who has managed this family-oriented fishing camp for 17 years, spent a recent week closing up for the season. "This is a little business on a lot of space," she says, explaining that the property comprises 1,000 forested acres with five lakes. The lodge, a recreation hall, and 20 wood-frame cabins front Forest Lake, but the biggest water body is Great Averill Pond.
Binns's face lights up as she recounts the past season's cookouts and parties. Even though she puts in 120-hour weeks during the peak months, she looks forward to the guests' return. "I'm now seeing the third generation walk through the door."
The property is under conservation easement, to keep it the way it is.
"We're different than most of Vermont," Binns says. "We're in a spruce-fir forest, not pine. We have nesting loons, plus lake trout, rainbows, browns, and landlocked salmon. And we have a glacial kettle bog." She laughs, noticing her own excitement. "We've always been into ecotourism here." As for geotourism, "I think of it as saving what's here," she says.
Donna Coughlin isn't sure which came first, the sheep or the wool; the yarn she hand-dyes and knits into hats, sweaters, and other clothing. But now she has them all, plus other critters, at Wooly Buggah Farm in Newark. "It's a play on the name of my father's favorite fly-fishing lure," Coughlin says. Her second-story shop in the barn overlooks her six sheep, penned with three goats and two horses.
Being on the Geotourism MapGuide has been positive in terms of business, she says, but she is listed in several visitor guides and views this one as similar - that is, mainly as a collective marketing effort.
Light from the large windows picks up the sparkling fibers on a rack of knitted hats in jewel colors. Coughlin has been dying and hand-painting her own yarn for 20 years. "Once someone asked me if I painted the sheep," she says.
Outside these labors of love, Coughlin works as a medical receptionist at two out-of-town offices. "I work every hour of the day that I'm not asleep," she says. That's another thing Kingdom residents have in common.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at www.regan-brown.com.