Gov. James Douglas ran into a buzz saw this week when it became known he had written a letter putting in jeopardy a bill creating new wilderness areas in Vermont and New Hampshire.
The New England Wilderness Act of 2006 won approval from the U.S. Senate earlier this week with strong backing from Vermont's three-man congressional delegation. The bill would add about 48,000 acres of new wilderness area in the national forest lands of Addison, Windsor and Bennington counties, plus additional wilderness areas in the White Mountain National Forest. With the support of Vermont's Democratic and independent delegation and New Hampshire's Republican delegation, the bill won unanimous approval in the Senate.
Douglas responded to this bit of good news by sending a letter to Rep. Richard Pombo of California, chairman of the House Committee on Resources. In the letter, Douglas said he supported additional wilderness but that he was concerned about the bill because it went beyond a plan adopted by the Forest Service and because it was opposed by several communities in Vermont. "I believe, and I would hope the committee would agree, that these communities should be heard," Douglas wrote.
The Douglas letter was disturbing for two reasons. First, it mischaracterizes the process that led to the creation of the wilderness bill, suggesting that the dissenting towns had not been heard or somehow the Senate had run roughshod over them. The letter also exaggerates the differences between the forest plan, which Douglas supports, and the bill passed by the Senate.
Second, Douglas' letter is addressed to a committee chairman considered to be one of the most fiercely anti-environmental members of Congress. Pombo could well be looking for an excuse to curb the expansion of wilderness in the national forest.
The reaction from Sens. Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords and from Rep. Bernard Sanders to Douglas' letter was swift. They said they thought Douglas was seeking to "derail" the Wilderness Act, and they said they were disappointed he had chosen to call on the Republican House leadership "to thwart a Vermont wilderness bill that many Vermonters have worked toward crafting and enacting, over many years."
In response, Douglas' spokesman, Jason Gibbs, went ballistic. He said the statement from Leahy, Jeffords and Sanders was "outrageously deceitful." He called it "total and complete hogwash." He accused them of "deliberately misrepresenting the governor's stance."
Douglas' letter to Pombo acknowledged that Douglas favors the expansion of wilderness areas in Vermont, and he did not explicitly oppose the bill. Instead, he expressed "concern."
Still, Pombo may not need much goading to gum up the works for passage of at least the Vermont portion of the bill. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Douglas' letter to Pombo was a political act that invited a political response.
It is true that the select boards in several towns opposed the creation of new wilderness areas, but through an exhaustive process of comment and hearings, large numbers of Vermonters endorsed new wilderness. Douglas is wrong to suggest that Vermonters have not been heard.
The Forest Service had proposed about 30,000 additional acres of wilderness, and the Wilderness Act roughly doubled that total. The additional acreage, however, consisted mainly of lands that the Forest Service had put in a status that was close to wilderness. The change is not as extreme as Douglas has suggested.
In writing the letter to Pombo, Douglas may have been seeking to please the special interests who have opposed new wilderness in Vermont, mainly loggers and sportsmen's groups. But if the bill runs aground among the anti-environmental Republicans of the House, Douglas will have to answer to the vast majority of Vermonters who were pleased to see the Senate advance a plan to set aside wild lands in Vermont forever.