As the old saying goes, he who stands in the middle of the road gets hit from both sides.
Gov. James Douglas may feel that the wilderness issue has turned him into road kill, though it appears he got hit harder from one direction than the other.
A look at documents and communications about the wilderness controversy shows that wilderness opponents had mounted considerable pressure on Douglas to oppose a new wilderness bill introduced in Congress and to appeal the newly adopted Forest Service plan for the national forest.
Douglas tried to be all things to all people and instead killed the wilderness bill entirely, at least for now.
Opponents of new wilderness areas include several business and recreation groups who object to actions that put logging and motorized recreation off limits in the Green Mountain National Forest. These are Douglas' political friends, and he wanted to help them out. At the same time, he knew it was politically perilous to oppose wilderness outright. That's because there is considerable support among Vermonters for the preservation of natural areas.
Douglas' attempt to honor the wishes of his anti-wilderness allies took the form of a letter to a House committee chairman expressing concern about a bill passed by the Senate that created about 48,000 acres of new wilderness areas in Vermont, plus more in New Hampshire. Douglas proclaimed that he supported the creation of new wilderness areas, which may have disappointed his anti-wilderness friends, but his actions have had the effect of blocking any new wilderness at all.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords and Rep. Bernard Sanders had promoted a wilderness bill that built upon the Forest Service plan, taking land that the Forest Service had designated as something near wilderness and adding it to the officially designated wilderness areas.
Douglas' anti-wilderness friends wanted no new wilderness; in fact, they hoped Douglas would appeal the Forest Service plan, which called for only 27,000 acres of new wilderness. But they understood Douglas' need to declare himself a supporter of wilderness to be compelled by politics. Ed Larson of the Vermont Forest Products Association noted that the "heat from the media was so strong and so relentless" that Douglas was forced to back away from an anti-wilderness stance. "We are sad that he did," Larson said. He added, "I am urging my people not to throw him overboard because of it."
Rather than throw him overboard, they might want to pat him on the back. Though he claims he did not intend to do so, the wilderness bill is dead, unless the House rescues it during the lame duck session after the election.
Most Vermonters understand that the proposed wilderness areas are so remote they were never likely to be logged and that leaving certain wild lands untouched by mechanization, allowing nature to take its course, would provide a rare sanctuary, not just for people, but for natural processes.
But Douglas accidentally on purpose derailed the new wilderness areas. He felt obliged politically to support a compromise that is 6,000 acres smaller than the original proposal passed by the Senate. But even the compromise now lies dormant.
Maybe Ed Larson isn't so sad after all.