Foes of forest bill pressured Douglas
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | October 06,2006
MONTPELIER - Internal documents and correspondence reveal that powerful industry groups and advocates of "traditional" land uses such as logging put substantial pressure on the administration of Gov. James Douglas to oppose the federal bill expanding the wilderness area within the Green Mountain National Forest.
The groups also urged Douglas to appeal the U.S. Forest Service's new plan for the area.
The Forest Service plan and the wilderness bill pending in Congress were reached through separate, but related, processes.
The Forest Service recommended expanding by about 27,000 acres the forest land designated as wilderness. Wilderness lands are off limits to mechanized and motorized vehicles and to logging.
The final decision on the size of any new wilderness area, however, is up to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. And Vermont's lone House member and two senators recommended giving wilderness designation to about 48,000 acres, angering groups opposed to increasing forest wilderness areas.
A variety of groups, including the Vermont Traditions Coalition and Associated Industries of Vermont, opposed the Forest Service plan, the bill or both, because of their potential to limit recreational and logging activities within the National Forest. And they wanted the Douglas administration to join them.
Jonathan Wood, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation wrote in a June e-mail that Douglas could not both appeal the plan and oppose the bill while maintaining a moderate stance. "I strongly support no to an appeal, yes to wilderness bill opposition, for both the political and scientific reasons," Wood wrote.
Douglas initially raised objections to the bill, in a letter to a powerful Republican member of the U.S. House, although he later came to an agreement with the Vermont delegation to support the designation of roughly 42,000 acres of additional wilderness.
That agreement, reached in the final days of the regular session of Congress, passed the U.S. Senate but not the House of Representatives. It is possible the legislation will pass during a "lame-duck" session between the November election and next year.
"The heat from the media was so strong and so relentless ... that he backed off, and we were sad that he did," Ed Larson, of the Vermont Forest Products Association, said of Douglas. "I am urging my people not to throw him overboard because of it."
Included in the ranks of those who oppose expansion of the wilderness area are some of the state's influential and respected business leaders.
"We have built a coalition that is a force to be reckoned with," said Larson, who is also a member of the Vermont Traditions Coalition. "We're mad. We are damn mad."
The political implications of the dispute were not lost on the administration.
In at least one e-mail exchange, Tom Torti, a top Douglas official, noted that the governor could face problems from members of his party and "will need help with the base" if his administration did not appeal the U.S. Forest Service's plan to expand wilderness areas. Torti later removed himself from the process after taking a job with the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for Douglas, said the documents show the administration tried to address the concerns of all those involved.
Ultimately, the governor did not formally appeal the Forest Service plan, although it did file for intervener status, bringing up several "technical" problems with the proposal.
"We actually took a long look at it, we were involved from fairly early on in the planning process," Wood said Thursday. "We did find some elements we were concerned about (but) we really didn't feel it was appropriate to file a full appeal of it."
Some of the comments made on the plan supported the case of those who objected to additional wilderness land, and some did not, Wood said. The intervener appeal was not designed to do either, he said.
Steve McLeod, who runs the Vermont Traditions Coalition, said that on balance the state's case helped his cause.
"Overall it is significantly more supportive of our appeals than different from our appeals," he said.
McLeod and others who opposed the designation of additional wilderness said that they, and Douglas, have been vilified for their views. They say a "working forest" with logging is, in fact, better for the state environmentally and economically.
Timber cutting "has been a key part of the resource base for lumber mills throughout the Southern half of Vermont for 250 years," said Bill Sayre, leader of Associated Industries of Vermont's Forest Policy Task Force and an advisor to a 100-year-old sawmill in Bristol.
"We believe it is good for the environment and good for the economy," Sayre said. He said efforts to reduce access to timber in Vermont began about 25 years ago.
Supporters of additional wilderness designation disagree. Just as the size of the Green Mountain National Forest has been expanded, so too should the size of the wilderness area within it be expanded, they said.
The administration also provided a list of potentially helpful cases for those appealing the plan to review, according to documents released to the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus.
Anthony Iarrapino, of the environmental group Conservation Law Foundation, said the documents reveal the hypocrisy of Douglas' support for the compromise legislation.
"Despite his recent statements of support these government documents reveal that high-level administration officials were working for months behind the scenes to oppose the bill, and even the Forest Service's bare bones wilderness proposal," said Iarrapino, who also received copies of the documents after a public records request.
The foundation is not entirely pleased with the Forest Service plan, noting among other things that it does not adequately address damage from all-terrain vehicles. Still, the foundation did not appeal the matter, although it has filed for intervener status, Iarrapino said.
McLeod said members of Congress should reject any designation of new wilderness land that exceeds the recommendations in the Forest Service plan
"The Congressional delegation has known full well that Gov. Douglas did not share their enthusiasm for fast-tracking wilderness and cutting off public desires and public processes," McLeod said.
While Congress can choose to follow the forest service recommendations, members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are ultimately the ones who designate wilderness land.
"The wilderness designations are the responsibility of the Congress," said Bob Paquin, a staff member for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy who has worked on the issue.
Congress also can remove wilderness designation from an area.
What is not clear is if a bill designating additional wilderness areas will pass Congress and become law before January, when newly elected lawmakers take their seats.
"It was made far more difficult with the late derailment of the bill in the regular session but now that the bill is back on the tracks and has passed the Senate the delegation remains committed to getting the bill completely through the process," said David Carle, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. "It will be difficult but remains doable."
Gibbs said it is possible.
"Gov. Douglas asked the agency to work towards a compromise with the delegation. They have done that and we look forward to working with the delegation to pass a bill before the end of this year."
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.