Green Mountain Wilderness Act falters
By Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | September 26,2006
The feud between the state's congressional delegation and Gov. James Douglas over proposed wilderness lands in the Green Mountain National Forest grew even wilder Monday.
Federal legislation that would double the amount of wilderness lands within the Green Mountain National Forest hit stormy legislative waters in the U.S. House of Representatives, with both sides claiming the other was trying to kill the legislation in the closing days of Congress.
But Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., claimed victory late Monday, saying he was able to muster support to defeat a move that he said would have doomed the bi-state, bi-partisan New England Wilderness Act.
That move would have pulled the New Hampshire lands out of the legislation and created two New Hampshire-only bills.
The bi-partisan legislation began to fall apart earlier Monday, and Sanders and wilderness advocates were quick to blame Republican Gov. James Douglas, who sent a letter last week to House Republican leaders complaining about the Senate-passed bill.
Vermont's congressional delegation—one Democrat and two independents—claimed the letter was a thinly-disguised attempt to kill the extra wilderness designation during an election year.
Sanders' chief of staff, Jeff Weaver, said the Vermont delegation came up with a strategy to defeat the New Hampshire-only wilderness bills, which were slated for a vote late Monday night in Congress. The New Hampshire wilderness bills, one for each of that state's congressional districts, required a suspension of the House rules, and Sanders was able to defeat those suspensions, Weaver said.
In Congress, a rule suspension needs a two-thirds majority vote, and both New Hampshire bills failed to garner that majority, Weaver said.
"We're going to take it one day at a time and today was a good day," Sanders said in a prepared statement. "We're working to bring forward the Senate bill, which has the support of the entire delegation."
The statement added, "Unfortunately, as a result of Gov. Douglas' intervention, the Vermont wilderness was essentially stripped from the bill by the House Republican leadership. We're glad tonight we were successful in defeating the Republican-only bills."
But a spokesman for Douglas, whose letter spawned the rare feud between Vermont's congressional delegation and its chief executive, said it was Sanders who had effectively killed the wilderness bill with his strategy.
Jason Gibbs, the governor's spokesman, said that the Vermont wilderness provision could have been reinserted during a conference committee, which would have been formed after House passage of the legislation to work out differences between the Senate and House bills.
Instead, Gibbs said, there is no wilderness bill at all.
Douglas has been sharply criticized by environmental groups and the state's congressional delegation for his letter to Chairman Richard Pombo of the House Resources Committee. They have accused the governor of inserting himself into the wilderness debate at the 11th hour, as Congress races to adjourn for elections.
Weaver said that if the New Hampshire-only bills passed the House, there was no way the House and Senate would have held a conference committee before the 2006 election. The only hope of getting the bill passed now, he said, is to attach the Senate bill to a must-pass piece of legislation already pending before Congress.
Gibbs said Douglas supports adding new wilderness lands to the 400,000 acre state forest, although he has refused to say exactly how much.
"The governor wants a wilderness bill this year and will continue to urge the Congress to pass a bill," Gibbs said.
Under the Senate-passed bill, the wilderness area would expand to 107,000 acres, or about one-quarter of the national forest.
Gibbs said the Senate bill ignored the concerns of several small towns which are opposed to more wilderness lands in their towns, specifically Hancock and Granville.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.