The perils of brinksmanship
Gov. James Douglas seems to have miscalculated over the proposed federal Vermont Wilderness Act.
Douglas first created a crisis for the bill, which passed the U.S. Senate without a whisper as a consent bill, by writing to U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, the California Republican who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, saying that many Vermonters opposed the bill and they needed to have their voices heard.
That was only half true. Many Vermonters do oppose creating more wilderness areas: Loggers, hunters, ATV riders and residents of a few small towns on the edge of the forest who gain more from having an accessible, harvestable forest at their door than a wildlife preserve.
The problem is that they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by Vermonters who think we need to preserve our wilderness and who supported the bill — which is why the debate was over how much wilderness to put aside, not whether to do so. And everybody had had ample time to be heard in the five years the Forest Service studied the issue.
But being the voice of compromise in the middle of an uproar is Douglas' stock in trade, and so he went ahead and created a crisis where none existed. It was a way to pick up brownie points with those opposed to the bill, and he knew there was a compromise on the table, as it had been offered weeks earlier.
It is a political trick reminiscent of the health care debate in the last session of the Legislature. Once a bill was close to finished, Douglas was only too happy to flatly reject proposal after proposal until at the very end he "found" a compromise he could sell to the voters as the hard work of a true consensus-builder. It's a great role for a moderate Republican in a very Democratic state, and he probably wrung a couple of concessions out of the House bill-writers as well.
The problem this time was that the artificial crisis got out of control. Like a little boy playing with matches, Douglas started a fire he couldn't put out. Because health care was a state issue, all Douglas had to do was decide when to make his move and the bill could go forward. But this time, he sicced a virulent anticonservationist onto the bill — who else would be in charge of natural resources in this Congress?
And although Douglas was able to "find" the compromise he was offered weeks ago, time ran out. Vermont's wilderness was not a priority for a Californian noted not only for his attempts to dismantle the Environmental Protection Act, but also named as one of the 17 most corrupt members of the House.
Douglas' ploy almost worked. Had the bill passed, he would have been a hero to a few and the issue probably wouldn't have been noticeable.
But at this point, the bill is dead, barring a reprieve in the lame-duck session after the elections. Instead of reaching a compromise over how much wilderness to put aside, Douglas' playing with fire burned down the whole forest.
Now Scudder Parker, who has been looking for a rallying cry, has a label to stick on Douglas: "The Antienvironment Governor" And Peter Welch got a fresh chance to remind voters who Martha Rainville will be caucusing with in Washington if she wins.
Brinksmanship is a dangerous strategy: Useful in a crisis but no way to run a state day to day. Jim Douglas forgot that and now we will see how much of a price he and his friends will pay.