Deal ends rift over wilderness land
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau And Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | September 28,2006
MONTPELIER - The state's Washington delegation and Gov. James Douglas reached a compromise Wednesday on how much additional land should be given wilderness protection in the Green Mountain National Forest, an issue that had threatened to become a thorny election-year problem for the Republican governor.
If legislation embodying the compromise passes the U.S. House and Senate, about 41,000 acres would be added to the 59,000 acres now designated as wilderness. That's roughly 6,066 acres less than would have been added to the wilderness area under the original bill.
Only two days remain in the regular session, and it is not clear if the compromise can pass before Congress breaks.
"What was already difficult is even more difficult with the week that we have lost," said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "The delegation will do all that is humanly possible to get the bill back on the legislative tracks."
Vermont's congressional delegation - one Democrat and two independents - supported the original bill, but Douglas opposed it in a letter he sent this month to Republican House leaders. Douglas' letter came after the bill passed the U.S. Senate unanimously.
The 6,066 acres that have been removed from the bill as part of the compromise are in the northern part of the proposed Glastenbury Mountain wilderness area in Bennington County. The same compromise had been offered to Douglas earlier in the month, according to the delegation.
Leahy, U.S. Sen. James Jeffords and U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders jointly offered the amended proposal to Douglas.
Jason Gibbs, a Douglas spokesman, said the two sides have reached "a responsible compromise."
"The governor has always wanted a wilderness bill," Gibbs said. "He is very optimistic that one will pass the Congress this year. He looks forward to supporting the delegation as they move this issue forward."
The rare break between Douglas and the state's three-member
congressional delegation developed after Douglas sent a letter to Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, asking him to consider the bill. Douglas' letter said the legislation went against the wishes of many Vermonters.
In a letter to Douglas on Wednesday, Sanders, Leahy and Jeffords wrote, "The Delegation will reiterate our previous offer and amend our legislation to remove the approximately 6,000 acres in the proposed Glastenbury Wilderness Area that S. 2463 added to the wilderness study area designated by the Forest Service management plan.
"Once complete, the Delegation will expect your assistance, should the House and Senate leadership ask you to confirm your support of the legislation, as amended."
The controversy had spilled over into the race for governor. Douglas' Democratic opponent, Scudder Parker, has questioned the timing of Douglas' actions in the wilderness-lands debate, and at a news conference in Brattleboro on Wednesday before the compromise was announced, Parker criticized Douglas' handling of the issue.
"Jim Douglas has once again pitted Vermonters against each other over a critical issue," Parker said. The timing of Douglas' criticism, Parker said, "shows just how inflexible and political Jim Douglas has become."
Parker said the legislation would have passed the House earlier in the week if not for Douglas' letter to Pombo. Pombo is an outspoken critic of wilderness lands who has suggested selling off some of the country's national forests.
The question of wilderness designation may also become an issue in the race to replace Sanders in the U.S. House. Republican Martha Rainville and Democrat Peter Welch have staked out very different positions on the issue.
Rainville said Wednesday that the attempt by Congress to add more than the 27,000 acres of wilderness suggested by the U.S. Forest Service "discarded the requirements of fair play and accountability."
In a brief telephone interview, Rainville said the country has "a congress that seems far too often to short-circuit the process."
"It's not just limited to the Republican leadership in Congress. This is an instance of the Democratic members doing that," Rainville said.
In a written statement, she added, "Personally, I am not convinced that adding tens of thousands more acres of land to the Wilderness designation would be good for Vermont's tourism, recreational and forest products economies. However, as a member of Congress I will support the consensus arrived at by an open, inclusive and transparent process such as was followed by the Forest Service."
Welch, on the other hand, has supported the original bill, which would have designated about 47,000 acres of new wilderness area. A Welch spokesman said Rainville's position "puts her on the most conservative fringe of the Republican Party, at odds with the Vermont tradition established by Sen. Aiken, Sen. Stafford and the current delegation."
The Green Mountain National Forest encompasses about 400,000 acres.