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Greens with That! 

Bill McKibben on Sanders' appointment to Senate committees on energy and the environment. He notes Bernie was slow to enlist in the climate-change fight but is now one of its most aggressive combatants.

Bernie Sanders

Published November 22, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

On the Monday before Election Day, a group of about 30 protesters walked across the bridge at Crown Point, carrying signs asking International Paper to stop its test burn of tires. It was as much a dirge as a protest: The first scraps of rubber were being shoveled into the furnace even as we walked. As on so many fronts in recent years, it appeared that environmentalists had lost one more battle. The signs might as well have said "Kick Me."

What a difference two weeks can make. Turns out this is going to be the greenest Thanksgiving in a very long time. Here's what's on the menu:

The victory at International Paper. The multinational giant decided, after barely a week of testing, that a band of Addison County protesters had been right for three years: It couldn't burn tires on the cheap without exceeding pollution limits. IP had been hoping to pour four tons an hour of the salvaged treads into its furnace but got barely a quarter of the way through before smokestack monitors showed what should have been obvious from the start: Like every other tire-burning mill in the country, IP would need an electrostatic precipitator to keep dangerous particulates from pouring out the top.

The fight came straight from a political-science textbook - the plant is literally on the border, with most of the jobs on the New York side and the prevailing winds blowing the smoke across the lake. Politicians on both sides could therefore stiffen their posture and their rhetoric. But the Vermont activists managed their battle brilliantly, pointing out that the plant's workers also depended on more investment in the aging facility; if the company wouldn't spend money to modernize it, then perhaps it was planning the tire burn as a going-out-of-business "fire sale."

Local leaders such as Joanna Colwell and Jack Mayer kept the pressure on so relentlessly and creatively that one imagines IP executives breathing a sigh of relief when the test results gave them a reason to back down. Everyone in Addison County just plain breathed, long and deep.

A swath of new wilderness, approved by Congress in the first week of its lame-duck session. Years of work by tireless advocates such as Jim Northup of Forest Watch and Tony Clark of the Moosalamoo Association culminated in the designation of some 40,000 acres of new wilderness along the spine of the Green Mountains. The fight was interesting for all the things it showed: the deep support of Vermonters for wild land, for instance - polls consistently found at least three-quarters of residents backing more wild lands, even in the National Forest communities that would be affected.

But the drive for wilderness also precipitated a rare political misstep by Governor Jim Douglas, who did a favor for big-money timber interests by writing a letter to far-right Congressman Richard Pombo of California urging him to block the bill, which the state's delegation had patiently negotiated for months. When Pombo complied, the bill died. You could hear howls from editorial pages all over Vermont. Douglas' anti-environmental streak was revealed - more clearly than he usually allows. He backed down within a week, agreeing to a face-saving compromise that removed 6000 acres from the wilderness bill. (A plaque should go up at the base of Glastenbury Mountain, noting that its protection was sacrificed in AD 2006 for the political convenience of the governor.) By then it was too late; the bill got lost in the pre-election hustle.

At the polls, though, voters brought down Richard Pombo and many of his ilk. With Douglas holding little power to make mischief in the new congressional order, the bill sailed through.

Big green change in Washington. Most notably for Vermonters, Bernie Sanders was named to the Senate committees on energy and the environment, meaning he'll be a first-line player in the most important issue of our time: global warming. As Sen. Pat Leahy holds the line on the Constitution, Sanders will have to do the same with the line that separates us from climate chaos.

Sanders has rarely made environmental issues the prime focus of his powerful rhetoric. But climate change is only partly about mountains, lakes, ice caps and endangered species; it's also about the shape of the new economy that will have to replace our current fossil-fuel regime. If anyone can sell the idea of, say, replacing payroll taxes with carbon taxes, he's the guy. Especially since California's Barbara Boxer will chair the relevant committee, bringing with her that state's groundbreaking history of climate-change action.

Best of all, Sanders is unlikely to compromise too easily. The oil and coal companies will be eager, in the waning years of the Bush administration, to cut a deal. The terms of that deal need to be tough. Sanders is tough, and he knows that this is a first-tier issue for Vermonters. Three weeks ago Oklahoma's James "Global warming is a hoax" Inhofe wielded the gavel. Elections do matter.

New faces in Montpelier. It's true that the governor's office didn't change hands. But one of his most important cabinet members, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr, stepped down this month. With his departure comes the chance to address the state's single-largest failure and most exciting environmental opportunity: demonstrating to the rest of the country what a working food system might look like.

Kerr's tenure was dismal by any measure. Though he focused most of his energy on the Holstein industry, family dairies continued to disappear. Kerr affected not to care - as long as milk production stayed high, he said, that was progress. But the state's diverse farm population is disappearing, increasingly replaced by dairies both oversized and under-profitable, depending on a steady supply of low-wage illegal immigrant labor to stay in business.

The real cost is in lost opportunity. An activist agriculture department could offer more help in easing the transition for dairy farmers seeking to grow food people actually want, and for new farmers wishing to serve emerging markets. As illustrated by scores of small nonprofit experiments - from the Intervale to the land trust's LandLink program - there's no shortage of people who want to farm. The proliferation and success of farmers' markets and a slew of "Localvore" ventures also suggest that many Vermonters want to eat closer to home. We're making incremental progress, but with help from Montpelier on issues such as local food-processing facilities, the state could blaze a real trail.

The right person would find real support in the legislature. Rep. Dave Zuckerman, who graciously passed up a bid for Sanders' House seat to stay on as chair of the legislature's ag committee, will have a new ally next session. The guy who taught him to farm, Shoreham's legendary organic grower Will Stevens, won election to the Vermont House as a dirt-under-the-fingernails Independent. If Douglas senses the strong political support for this issue and appoints an innovator, the state could move beyond the mostly symbolic battle over liability for genetically modified seed and begin the hard, exciting business of becoming the nation's locus for local foods. Like squash from Stevens' Golden Russet farms, turkey from Paul Stone's operation in Orwell, and a big glass of cider from Champlain Orchards.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed!

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Bill McKibben


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