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Land Locked? 

Published April 24, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Imagine this: The State of Vermont, in coordin-ation with several nonprofit organizations and a sustainable timber corporation, purchases 133,000 remote acres in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The contracts, easements and legislation authorizing the sale strive to satisfy all the interested parties: they require that the land be managed to allow traditional public access to the land, protect important wildlife habitat and maintain most of it as a working forest.

Everyone’s happy, right? Wrong.

The scenario isn’t a dream. It’s the reality that began in 1997, when the Champion International Corporation announced it was divesting itself of its extensive land holdings in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. Champion, a paper and logging corporation, owned 133,000 acres in Vermont alone and made it perfectly clear to the public that it wanted to sell — quickly. Champion didn’t care if its huge tract of land fell into the hands of a developer, a thousand people looking to build second homes or another logging corporation with license to the land. Champion wanted cash.

The Conservation Fund stepped up to the plate first. Knowing about the rich ecological heritage of the land, the national organization signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with Champion to buy its holdings in all three states — with some caveats. In Vermont, the Fund wanted the involvement of the state, easements assuring public access and ecological protection, and a private logging partner that would maintain the working nature of the forest.

With uncharacteristic speed, the Vermont legislature held hundreds of hours of hearings and cobbled together a coalition that included the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy and many others to make this historic purchase possible. In 1999, the $26.5-million deal was completed, with a mere $4-million investment from Vermont taxpayers.

Once the legislature gave its approval, it was the job of the Agency of Natural Resources to conduct a full assessment of the land and provide a blueprint for integrating the three goals. After more than two dozen public hearings and consultation with hundreds of experts in areas including land management, flora and fauna, sporting and recreation, logging and ecology, the ANR issued its master plan for the land.

It was largely uncontroversial. The 84,000 acres sold to the Essex Timber Corporation, for example, would be sustainably managed with easements guaranteeing perpetual and full public access to the land for all traditional uses. To the consternation of environmentalists, activities such as snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicles were included in the definition of “traditional use.”

But when it came to 22,000 pristine acres known as the West Mountain Wildlife Manage-ment Area, the plan created an avalanche of opposition from the Vermont equivalent of the largely Western “Wise Use” movement — whose founder, Ron Arnold, once went on record saying, “We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely.”

Specifically, the ANR plan designated 12,000 acres as an “ecological core” area to remain unlogged and untrampled by motorized vehicles. Although hiking, hunting, primitive camping and other pedestrian uses would be allowed, the goal was to set aside a forest that Vermonters could enjoy and study for generations to come.

With that, the fighting began in earnest. A number of sporting groups and logging representatives cried foul, including the National Rifle Association and the newly founded Vermont Traditions Coalition. It didn’t matter to them that they could do practically anything on more than 91 percent of the 133,000 acres. The fact that the state — along with nonprofit conservation organizations — would have any restrictions on the land was enough to start a full-fledged ideological war. And they ran straight into the welcoming arms of the Republican leaders of the Vermont House.

Opponents of the ANR plans for the Champion land decided to package their arguments in the language of “good government.” Declaring that the vision did not follow “legislative intent,” House Repub-licans set out to blur its strong eco-focus.

The chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee reacted. “The Vermont legislature intends exactly what it passes, that’s why we write it down,” said Democratic Senator Dick McCormack. “We passed a law calling for the preservation of the Champion land and the ANR wrote the rules on how to do it. Now they’re crying because they can’t ride their snowmobiles and ATVs on 9 percent of it. Too bad.”

The House legislation, which is currently an amendment to a Senate bill, seeks to do away with the designated ecological core area by allowing motorized transport and commercial logging there. In fact, the legislation declares that “these forms of recreation, land management and logging shall be considered fully compatible with and supportive of ‘protection of natural resources.’”

Currently, the legislation is mired in a bitter dispute between the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats, with neither side apparently willing to budge. The former are mindful that if no legislative action is taken, the ANR plan will remain in effect. So they have tacked their Champion land amendment onto the capital spending bill, which must pass before the end of the session in order to keep the state running. Although Governor Dean takes the Democratic side in this debate, it’s unclear whether he’ll hold up infrastructure for the environment.

The lines are drawn. The rhetoric is red-hot. And if the House Republicans manage to get their way, Vermonters will lose an unprecedented opportunity to prove that recreation, preservation and sustainable logging can reasonably coexist in our forests.

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Michael Colby


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