The explanations by Gov. James Douglas for his efforts to block new wilderness areas in Vermont are unconvincing.
Douglas wrote a letter last week to Rep. Richard Pombo of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee, expressing concern about the bill passed by the Senate designating new wilderness areas in New Hampshire and Vermont. Douglas noted to Pombo that a handful of towns in Vermont had opposed the new wilderness areas.
Douglas says he supports new wilderness, but he has not been specific about how much or where, perhaps understanding that to do so would mean he would have to oppose the towns whose interests he now purports to be serving. He is trying to have it both ways.
The fact is that Douglas' letter to Pombo killed the wilderness bill, or at least wounded it seriously. Pombo was ready to approve a bill including wilderness areas in both New Hampshire and Vermont, but after reading the letter from Douglas, he yanked the Vermont wilderness out of the bill.
Douglas is disingenuous if he expresses surprise at that result. Pombo is one of the most anti-environmental members of Congress, and Douglas' concern about the bill gave Pombo ample grounds to sidetrack the Vermont portion of the bill.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Douglas have clashed sharply over their dealings on the wilderness issue. Douglas cites discussions that have taken place over three years showing he wanted to work with Leahy to craft a bill and says he is disappointed Leahy disregarded his concerns. Leahy says he was disappointed that Douglas did not take him up on his offer to settle on an acreage total that both could support.
Politics on the issue has continued now that the bill has run aground in the House. Pombo's decision to excise Vermont from the bill got Rep. Bernard Sanders into the act, and he used procedural methods to stall action on the New Hampshire wilderness. New Hampshire's two Republican congressmen were said to be irate at Sanders. But what did they expect? Sanders' action was a way for the House to take seriously Vermont's views.
Douglas now blames Sanders for stalling the bill, saying that the best way to revive the Vermont portion would be to let the New Hampshire wilderness bill go to a conference committee where the Vermont wilderness could be restored. That is a delusion. Conference committees are routinely used by the Republicans to push their own agenda. If Douglas were so concerned about the survival of the bill that he now seeks action in a conference committee, he should not have written to Pombo in the first place.
New Hampshire's two Republican senators, Judd Gregg and John Sununu, worked with Leahy and Sen. James Jeffords to craft the bill that passed the Senate. Now that their bill is stalled in the House, they have an interest in persuading House Republicans to act on both the Vermont and New Hampshire portions of the bill.
Wilderness is a national issue, which is why wilderness designation is the responsibility of Congress. Certainly, the people of Granville and Hancock have an interest in the issue, too, but their viewpoint is local, and they alone should not determine the outcome.
Douglas has been willing to override local concerns on projects such as the transmission lines now under construction in northwestern Vermont. That's because larger interests were at stake. We don't leave it to local towns to establish national parks, and the same is true for wilderness areas.
The larger interest at stake with wilderness areas is the need for the nation to preserve as wild certain carefully selected wild lands. Vermonters are now left to hope that Gregg and Sununu, working with Vermont's congressional delegation, can undo the damage done in the House as a result of Douglas' intervention.