Now that the New England Wilderness Bill has passed, we can look back at a political furor that exposed political and social fault lines that will be with us for some time.
The political fault line became visible when a letter from Gov. James Douglas to a Republican House member threatened to undo the work of Vermont's three-man congressional delegation; they had pushed the bill through the Senate with a minimum of fuss. Douglas bore the brunt of the outrage Vermonters expressed when it appeared the bill might die. From the other side Douglas had been hearing from a variety of sportsmen and business groups who opposed vastly expanded wilderness areas.
That was the political fault line, and after Douglas agreed to a compromise creating 42,000 acres of new wilderness, the rift between Douglas and the delegation had been patched up. But the social fault line will remain as long as those on each side view those on the other side as irreconcilable foes.
Opponents of the wilderness bill argued that placing woods off limits to logging could have damaging effects on the economy and on wildlife. Timber cutting opens up the woods, allowing for the growth of browse at the forest edge that provides food for deer and other wildlife. Barring logging also eliminates potential logging jobs, and preventing motorized entry puts the woods off limits to the elderly and disabled.
There is less disagreement about these points than might be supposed. Supporters of wilderness know these things are true. They respect and many of them practice the traditional uses that anti-wilderness groups revere, such as hunting, fishing and camping. And they see the importance of wood products and the logging industry to the economy and culture of the state. But they see other things as well.
Supporters of wilderness see the natural world as something larger than what mankind can make of it. It is well to manage the forest and use it in various ways. But supporters of wilderness also see the value in allowing nature to follow its course in areas large enough to matter. This may not be a value that can be tabulated in terms of hunting licenses or tourist visits. But it becomes evident when scientists or ordinary citizens are able to observe the natural processes that evolve in untouched areas, not to make use of them, but to know about them. It becomes evident when hikers, hunters, or others are able to reach a place far from the sound of motorized vehicles.
Wilderness supporters know that wilderness designation limits the uses others might make of the woods. Wheelchair-bound citizens are not likely to get very far in the Glastenbury wilderness. But they also know that motorized uses and logging negate the value of wilderness entirely. A large forest for motorized uses and logging remains. Wilderness advocates are promoting coexistence of these various uses.
The debate grew so fierce this fall that it didn't seem as if coexistence was in anyone's mind. Each side accused the other of embodying the interests of an elite. But the advocates of wilderness and those who promote traditional uses of the woods have more in common than they might suppose. They both love the woods. That ought to be a common ground.