Paul Brewster leaves Green Mountains, says he's ready for challenges in Alaska
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | March 26,2006
Of all of the 400,000 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest, Paul Brewster's favorite spot is in the White Rocks National Recreation Area in Wallingford, south of Rutland.
He's hiked to a perch among the limestone rocks often with his family, and he says it's there that he can see what is so beautiful about Vermont.
"They call it, 'the Valley of Vermont,'" Brewster said in a recent interview as he prepared to finish packing up his office as forest supervisor at the Green Mountain National Forest, based in Rutland. "It's as everyone thinks of Vermont – the pastoral and the forest. There are falcons up there."
Brewster is leaving Vermont for Alaska this month. Brewster, 51, has been the top guy at Vermont's swath of the national forest for the past seven years, and he's leaving for the No. 2 job for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, where he worked earlier in his career with the Forest Service. Brewster will be deputy regional forester, in charge of resources.
He's heading toward the Forest Service's crown jewel: the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
The Tongass is the nation's largest forest and the site of an epic environmental battle: It has the most controversial management plan in the national forest system, he said.
Environmentalists want to ban logging on the entire forest, when only 700,000 acres of the 17 million are even appropriate for timber harvesting, Brewster said.
The Tongass battle was fought in court, and the Forest Service's management plan was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which cited a "faulty economic demand analysis," he said. According to news reports, the Forest Service overstated the demand for Tongass timber.
The Forest Service has been given until July 2007 to revisit its plans for Tongass and challenges are sure to be ahead.
"It's not to the level of ANWAR," he said, referring to the national debate over oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, long proposed by the Bush administration.
The second largest national forest in Alaska is the Chugach National Forest, at 6.5 million acres. It encompasses the Prince William Sound, site of the devastating 1989 oil spill of the Exxon Valdez.
Brewster's own seven-year tenure in Vermont has been marked by controversy surrounding a new management plan for the Green Mountain National Forest.
Another major source of conflict is a three-year ban on logging because of concerns that habitat of the Indiana bat, a federally protected species, could be adversely affected. The government launched an extensive series of studies and field surveys, and found that the small bat was found in many more locations of the forest and the state than originally thought.
Forest Watch, along with other environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation, Friends of Wildlife and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, sued the Forest Service over several logging projects, most notably the Old Joe project in Rochester, and the Lamb Brook project in Readsboro-Searsburg. In both cases, the environmental groups prevailed in the federal appeals court.
"The Forest Service has two types of leaders: those who promote the interests of wild nature and future generations, and those who promote the interests of the agency. I hope for Alaska's and the nation's sake, that Paul's years in Vermont have helped him become the first type of leader. I wish him well," said James Northup, executive director of Forest Watch, an environmental group that has bird-dogged the Forest Service's every step in Vermont for the past decade.
William Sayre, an economist and consultant to A. Johnson & Co., a large lumber mill in Bristol, and chairman of the Associated Industries of Vermont forest policy task force, said he was impressed with Brewster's willingness to hear all sides in the debate over the use of the forest.
"I have the highest regard for Paul, he sincerely wants to hear the point of view from all people," Sayre said, adding that the new forest plan was a big disappointment to the timber industry.
Strongly held views on the forest are part of Vermont's heritage, Sayre said.
"Vermont is a good preparation for Paul, going to Tongass is going from the frying pan into the fire," he said.
Brewster's legacy is a new blueprint for the forest, which at 400,000 acres represents 5 percent of all the land in the state.
The Forest Plan, which will set down the guidelines on where snowmobilers can ride their machines, how many trees can be cut and what land should be off-limits to motorized recreation, was released earlier this week after years of study, and close to 100 community meetings.
Brewster came back from his new post in Alaska last week to introduce the final Forest Plan and its accompanying Environmental Impact Statement.
The final plan proposed a total of 27,000 new acres of wilderness within the forest, most of it on Glastenbury Mountain in southern Vermont. It was far short of the 80,000 acres sought by the Vermont Wilderness Association, a consortium of environmental groups.
The plan for the first time would allow the legal use of ATVs in the national forest, but in what Brewster says is a small and highly restricted way.
Under his aegis, the Green Mountain National Forest has added 28,375 acres, most of it in small parcels and all of it voluntary, he said. He says the forest will eventually encompass 500,000 acres, but that there were fewer large tracts of land available. The Green Mountain National Forest will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2007, he said.
The forest grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, when International Paper sold off huge holdings, often at $100 to $200 an acre. The price of land is now in the thousands, he said.
One large chunk of land, the conserved lands owned by TransCanada Corp., around the Harriman and Somerset reservoirs in southern Vermont, have long been discussed as the last big purchase. The land is surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest.
But Brewster said that the Forest Service would only be interested in the land north of Route 9, or the land surrounding Somerset. He said that would represent about 9,000 to 10,000 acres.
Brewster, along with being the forest supervisor in Vermont, oversaw a small, 16,000-acre national forest in New York state, the Finger Lakes National Forest.
That forest wasn't without controversy, either, Brewster said, when he decided against allowing the extraction of natural gas, which is under the national forest. The decision, however, was interpreted as an open door for future drilling, but Brewster denies that was the case.
That decision "went national," Brewster said, attracting the attention of The New York Times and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who promised that no drilling would occur in New York State's only national forest by inserting a two-sentence rider in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
Brewster is amazed by how strongly Vermonters feel about the national forest. He said that the staff of the Forest Service was inundated with public comments about the plan. They spent months going through the 10,000 letters or e-mails they received last summer.
He said 8,500 were form letters or e-mails. The predominant issue was how much wilderness protection would be proposed for the 400,000 acres, and whether ATVs would be allowed on the forest. There were also letters about the multiple uses of the forest, particularly how much logging would be allowed – and where – in the forest.
He said he and the staff paid particular attention to the 1,500 original letters written about their plan, and he said that several changes were adopted as a result of public comment.
Brewster, a native New Englander and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has worked for the Forest Service since he graduated from college, with the exception of two years he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, a small African nation.
"I'm an idealistic person. But I say the biggest change in me in the past seven years has been focusing on what's achievable," he said.
"Will there ever be peace in the valley?" he asked rhetorically. "Vermonters have deeply held views and there is a deep division. I now have a more realistic view of reconciling deeply held views of the forest."
He said his tenure in Vermont has prepared him well for dealing with people who care about the land.
He decided to return to Alaska largely because of its lifestyle, a move that was supported by his wife and two sons, Ben, 18, a senior at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland and Josh, 12, a 7th-grader in Pittsfield.
"The land is the big attraction, it's magnificent and wild," he said.
"These lands are for the public, for future generations. It sounds schmaltzy, but these are the things I cling to," Brewster said.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.