Wilderness bill passes
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | November 16,2006
MONTPELIER — The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday giving wilderness designation to an additional 42,000 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest, ending a contentious debate that pitted Vermont's congressional delegation against the governor.
The bill, which also establishes wilderness acreage in New Hampshire, goes to President Bush for his signature.
The new land set aside as wilderness covers 65 square miles, an area about one-fourteenth the size of Rutland County. Lands within a wilderness area are given special protection; many activities, including driving motorized vehicles, are severely limited.
Vermont's two U.S. senators and one House member — two Independents and one Democrat — originally supported adding 48,000 acres of wilderness area to the forest. But opposition by the administration of Republican Gov. James Douglas and other factors sidetracked the bill.
Meeting in a post-election "lame duck" session, the House passed the compromise measure on a voice vote. The U.S. Senate previously passed the legislation.
"Things are often so chaotic that when you can pass something you pass it," said Rep. Bernard Sanders, who was elected this month to a U.S. Senate term that starts in January. "We had the opportunity to pass this today and I am just delighted we were able to do it. I think the people of our state believe in wilderness."
Douglas said he is glad the bill has been completed.
"It is a compromise that the delegation and I achieved and I am pleased it has passed and I hope and expect it will become law," he said.
The compromise and the original bill would have increased the amount of wilderness in the national forest by more than the U.S. Forest Service recommended.
"It's a compromise between the bill and the Forest Service plan," Douglas said. "It's the middle ground."
Environmental groups that had been pushing for the measure welcomed the bill's approval by the House.
"The passage of this bill represents the pro-wilderness voices of tens of thousands of people in both Vermont and New Hampshire," said Leanne Klyza Linck of The Wilderness Society. "Wilderness is a political decision and compromise is inherent in policy making. No one gets it all."
But some advocates of so-called traditional forest uses — logging, hunting and all-terrain-vehicle riding, for example — opposed the additional acreage and objected to the way the bill was put together.
Steve McLeod of the Vermont Traditions Coalition called the bill a "run-away sham disguised as environmentalism" and said the bill's opponents prevented an even greater expansion of wilderness lands.
"Thank God thousands of Vermonters and over 20 traditional-use groups and the forest host towns and the 2004 Vermont House of Representatives fought their hearts out," he said. "This would have been a lot worse."
Few state residents understand the effects of wilderness designation, not only on logging and other jobs, also but on the forest, McLeod and others say. Prohibitions against tree cutting, for example, ultimately reduce animal habitat, they argue.
Vermont's congressional delegation committed "an abuse of power," McLeod said. The addition of 42,000 acres brings total wilderness lands within the Green Mountain National Forest to 157 square miles, "the interior of which will only be accessed by multi-day hikers," he said.
Ed Larson of the Vermont Forest Products Association agreed.
"Our congressional delegation doesn't represent our interests in a working forest," Larson said. The decision was made without enough testimony and "without regard for the people who make a living off the land," he said. "It's the opposite of good sustainable management. People are part of the ecology, too."
Sanders said the vast majority of Vermonters want more land designated as wilderness.
"I understand that not everyone agrees with this legislation," he said.
Still, he called the protected lands "a great asset" for generations of Vermonters. "I think it becomes a significant tourist attraction, among other things," he said.
There is little likelihood that Bush will veto the bill, Sanders and Douglas said.
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.