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Beware the Evil Wind! 

Inside Track

In Iraq, Americans are fighting and dying in hopes that that country's huge oil reserves will one day, under a U.S.-friendly government, keep America's gas-guzzling SUVs clogging the highways.

Meanwhile, in Vermont, the Douglas administration and the editorial page of our local daily, which ignores the Iraq War, are battling with advocates of a sane alternative-energy policy.

Considering the way the Freeps' conservative editorial page has backed the Agency of Natural Resources in condemning the proposed East Mountain Demonstration Project, you'd think wind turbines were gay or something. The project, with four turbines providing six megawatts, is to be located 30 miles north of St. Johnsbury. More info at http://www.easthavenwindfarm.com.

Last week ANR said it wants more studies on the towers' impact on bird migration. The company says plenty of studies show the number of birds killed by flying into the turbines "is so minimal it's insignificant."

East Haven Windfarm vice-president Dave Rapaport told "Inside Track," "The Free Press is obviously resorting to an increasing level of hysteria. One could ask whether they're doing this because the arguments they've previously made [against wind power] have been so hollow that they've got to try something else. Have you ever seen a continuing diatribe like this?" Rapaport asked.

Answer: No, we haven't. Publisher Jim Carey's Free Press has pumped out about two dozen anti-wind-energy editorials.

"The weight of evidence," said Rapaport, "indicates bird mortality is not a problem with modern wind turbines. You take a look anywhere around the country -- around the world, for that matter -- and you've got an average mortality rate of about two birds per turbine per year."

Even if the East Haven studies are wrong by a factor of 10, said Rapaport, "We're still talking about a very, very small number of birds [20 per year per turbine -- low even for a fit domestic pussycat]. "And because it's a small demonstration project," Rapaport added, "there's an opportunity to see if we're right."

Good point.

So far the Freeps hasn't said exactly what it does want for energy sources in the future, but we know it's anything but enviromentally friendly. Remember the paper's six-editorial assault on the city's proposed multimodal transportation center on Battery Street?

Editorial Page Editor Susan Reid fired up the just-say-no opposition and killed a transit hub that Burlington will surely regret not having in a couple years. God forbid the People's Republic would be prepared for the inevitable $5-a-gallon gasoline, eh?

Fortunately, polls show that Vermonters have a much sounder understanding of the energy picture and, unlike The Burlington Free Press, do not consider wind energy development to be the greatest threat to Vermont.

Peak What? -- Vermont's chief executive memorably demonstrated just how well versed he is on energy matters last week on VPR's "Switchboard." Toward the end of the call-in program, host Bob Kinzel took a call for Gov. Jim Douglas from "Paul in Middlesex."

Kinzel: Hi, Paul, welcome to the program!

Paul: I have two questions: What does "peak oil" mean to you, and what are you doing to help Vermonters cope with the impacts of rising oil costs on our transportation systems, food systems and heating systems?

Kinzel: Paul, just to clarify, did you say "peak oil?"

Paul: Peak oil.

Kinzel: Would you like to tell us what that means?

Paul: "Well, is the governor familiar with it?

Gov. Douglas: Nope.

Paul: OK. Peak oil is when we've consumed essentially half the Earth's endowment in oil and we're on the backside of the curve.

Out in Green Mountain radio-land, jaws dropped. The governor of Vermont doesn't know what "peak oil" means?

A Google search for "peak oil" yields 2.5 million hits. What it means is, once the halfway point is crossed, the price and availability of oil and its byproducts will skyrocket. Economies based on oil will face a crisis that our leaders, as demonstrated on VPR by Gov. Douglas, are in no way, shape or form prepared for. Some credible sources believe the "peak oil" point has already passed.

After hearing Gov. Scissorhands' professed ignorance of "peak oil" on statewide radio, David Blittersdorf, president of NRG Systems in Hinesburg -- http://www.nrgsystems.com -- sent out an email to a list that included Gov. Douglas' commissioner of Public Service, David O'Brien, and other notables on the Vermont energy scene.

It read, in part: "Our elected leaders and their department heads are uninformed about the finite, physical world, and it shows. Sorry, I am not politically correct and am attacking state energy policy, but this stupidity has got to stop. I know there are many good people in state government, but they can't speak out or get their bosses to see the light."

O'Brien, whose responsibilities include utility oversight and energy planning, did not appreciate Blittersdorf's "peak oil" missive. The commish responded: "Thanks for sharing, but please remove me from future email distributions of this sort. I already know what they are going to say."

By the way, we checked with the Guv's press secretary to make sure Vermont's chief executive didn't just have a momentary memory lapse. Unfortunately, Jason Gibbs has been unable to get a moment with the governor in the last 24 hours to doublecheck for us.

Blittersdorf said that, unlike O'Brien's, he received several favorable responses, including one from a different Douglas administration official urging him to "keep up the good work!" (We confirmed its authenticity and spoke with the official, but will, for the person's job safety, keep their identity secret.)

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Scudder Parker said he was listening to "Switchboard" that night, too, and, like many environmentally conscious Vermonters, was "astonished" to hear Vermont's current governor express total ignorance on peak oil.

"Not to understand peak oil, whether you agree with it or not," said Scooter, er, Scudder, "is just amazing to me."

And why should anyone give a damn about peak oil?

"How about because of freezing to death in the dark?" answered Parker. Douglas, he said, "is simply in denial about energy issues and the impact of energy prices on the future of this state."

You know, the 2006 governor's race might not be the Jim Douglas cakewalk everyone expects.

Douglas Embraces Secrecy -- Our governor appears to be on a new mission to leave a legacy noteworthy for its success in bolstering government secrecy by "legally" keeping more and more "public" records private.

Gov. Douglas says he fully supports ANR's refusal to turn over internal "public" records to the Conservation Law Foundation. The "public" records involve the agency's decision not to enact a new stormwater permit system.

Democrat Parker told "Inside Track" such secrecy and refusal to release public documents would not be an issue in a Parker administration.

"The governor's position on this is shocking to me," said Scooter, er, Scudder "and it's very un-Vermont. It's just not in the Vermont tradition."

The Guv already has executive privilege, but now argues Vermont should embrace what's called the "deliberative process privilege" to protect agency and department records from public view. He notes it is recognized in other states and also by the federal government.

Douglas won round one last summer when Washington County Superior Judge Matthew Katz cited the "deliberative process privilege" in denying public access to two documents sent by Commissioner Patrick Flood to Charles Smith who at the time was the secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

Katz's ruling does not, however, make it the law of the land. It'll take the Vermont Supreme Court to do that, and our governor sounds eager for such a court test.

As goes Washington, so goes Vermont, eh?

Douglas Online Again! -- For the last five months, Gov. Jim Douglas' almost weekly press conferences have not been available for online viewing. That's because the administration put the videotaping contract out to bid last spring. Peak Productions of Brattleboro was the low bidder by about $200 per taping, and took over from Burlington's CCTV/Channel 17 which had done the job since the mid-1990s.

Who cares?

Well, those who like to keep an eye on their government might. The governor's weekly press conference, at which he takes spontaneous questions from reporters, is almost as unique to our tradition of local democracy as town meeting. Press colleagues in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York just laugh when I ask if their governors have weekly press conferences.

These days, Peak Productions mails CD copies of the gubernatorial pressers to cable TV public-access channels around the state. Folks in Chittenden County who once watched Gov. Scisssorhands taking on the press the evening of the event now don't get to see it until the following week. And Press Secretary Jason Gibbs' promise to post the pressers online has gone unfulfilled.

In October, Gibbs told yours truly the delay was caused by "a combination of technical difficulties and a federal law, and new state policy requiring that everything we post on the Internet be compatible with software that allows the visually and hearing impaired to review its contents."

The good news is, this month Ch. 17 has graciously come to the rescue and is now posting the "Douglas vs. the Press" face-offs on their site free of charge: http://www.channel17.org.

Lately, the questions from the Statehouse press corps have had a sharper edge, and yours truly is no longer the only one inquiring about Douglas' loyal support for President Bush's disastrous Iraq War.

Due Any Minute -- Progressive State Rep David Zuckerman tells "Inside Track" that fatherhood is imminent. Pony Tail Dave's wife Rachel Nevitt is expecting their first any minute. A home birth is planned.

Will fatherhood affect Zuckerman's possible congressional candidacy in 2006?

One veteran Democratic consultant and dad suggested the new baby will keep Pony Tail out of the congressional race.

"Having a newborn is like joining the largest secret society in the world," says "Deep Dad." "No one can prepare you for it. It is the greatest and most stressful thing imaginable. For the first 3-6 months you don't sleep. It's like having someone come in and hide three loud alarm clocks somewhere in your apartment every night. One goes off around midnight, the other at 2:30 and the last one at 4:45 -- when you then decide you might as well wake up for the day."

Words of wisdom?

We'll see.

Bikepath Debate -- The snow and ice last weekend made sections of the Burlington Bikepath hazardous for the healthy, hearty souls out for a jog, walk or bicycle ride. The seawall stretch that parallels the Barge Canal was risky to even walk on. That's where yours truly bumped into Chapin Spencer.

Mr. Spencer is a former city councilor and executive director of Local Motion -- http://www.localmotion.org -- a nonprofit "promoting bicycling, walking, running, inline skating and the facilities that make such travel easy and safe."

But Chapin was not out for a ride. (Yours truly was, actually.) Mr. Local Motion was taking pictures of the ice and snow-covered path and the folks tiptoeing around the dangerous spots. They're pictures he intends to show the Burlington Parks & Recreation Commission at its next meeting. Local Motion would like to boost wintertime motion by getting the city to keep at least part of the Burlington Bikepath open through our beloved Vermont winter.

The policy has been to let the snow pile up on the city's most popular recreational resource, which the Parks Department says is used by 150,000 people annually. That puts the seven-mile track from Oakledge Park to the mouth of the Winooski River off-limits to joggers, walkers, skaters and bikers. Instead, the city says, it's perfect for cross-country skiers!

"People in the wintertime need a place to exercise, whether it's walking, biking, running, you name it," says Spencer. "Unfortunately, the freeze-thaw means most days aren't great for cross-country skiing on the bikepath, and the wind blows the snow off."

The city, he says, "is concerned about the money it would cost, the liability, and the fact they don't have the right equipment to do it."

Parks & Rec spokesman Bob Whalen says Chapin's right about that. He also told us the thickness of the asphalt is a problem.

"It wasn't designed like a road," said Whalen, and plowing it can drive the frost deeper. "And if we plow it, do we need to salt it? It's right by the lake, and there are environmental concerns."

Funny, but while Burlington's Bikepath was impassable Sunday, South Burlington's rec path was a horse of a different color. The stretch from UVM south to behind WCAX-TV was easily ridable. There were clear patches, but most was hard-packed snow.

According to South Burlington Recreation Director Tom Hubbard, the city plows but doesn't salt the most heavily used part of their rec path, so runners, walkers and pedal-pushers can still get their exercise throughout the cold months. Rumor has it exercise promotes good health and reduces health-care costs.

But, hey, but what about cross-country skiers, you say?

"If people want to cross-country ski," replied Hubbard, "there's just so much open land out there to ski on." Plowing a few miles of the city's rec path ain't gonna keep skiers indoors. But unlike the skiers, the runners have nowhere else to go except the highways.

The good news is, Burlington's Parks & Rec Commission is "willing to reconsider and look at a pilot project," said Whalen.

The pilot project, he said, would plow the Bikepath from Waterfront Park, which is already cleared, all the way north to Leddy Park.

Nice.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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