• Bush signs Vermont wilderness measure
    By Susan Smallheer Herald Staff | December 02,2006
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    President Bush signed into law the New England Wilderness Act of 2006 on Friday, ending one of the hottest controversies of Vermont's campaign season.

    With little fanfare, Bush signed the law and about seven other land use bills, according to David Carle, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

    The bill gives wilderness protection to 42,000 additional acres in the Green Mountain National Forest, a designation that means the land is off-limits to logging and mechanized recreation, such as snowmobiling.

    Wilderness lands remain open to hiking, camping, hunting and fishing.

    With the addition of the new wilderness land, about one-fourth of the 400,000 acre national forest is now off-limits to those activities. The law takes effect immediately, Carle said.

    The majority of the new wilderness is on Glastenbury Mountain in Bennington County, although there are new areas in Addison and Windsor counties, particularly the Joseph Battell Wilderness Area, which is south of the existing Breadloaf Wilderness Area. It is named for one of Vermont's early forest preservationists,

    "This is a balanced plan, produced through bipartisan cooperation, which now becomes the heritage of all Vermonters," Leahy said in a joint news release with Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., and Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.

    "This is great news for conservation in Vermont and for future generations of Vermonters," Jeffords said in the statement.

    The bill sailed through the Senate on a unanimous vote, thanks to efforts by Leahy and Jeffords.

    But it ran into opposition in the House, after Gov. James Douglas sent a letter to a House committee chairman raising questions about the fairness of the process.

    Douglas' letter to Rep. Richard Pombo of California was blamed by Leahy, Jeffords and Sanders, as well as Vermont environmentalists, for nearly killing the wilderness bill.

    Sanders' office, which was instrumental in getting the bill back on track, praised the new law.

    "This bipartisan plan balances the diverse needs of Vermonters and ensures that wilderness areas will be preserved for generations to come," the statement from his office said.

    Congressman-elect Peter Welch, who will take over Sanders' job in the House, voiced support of the new law in a prepared statement.

    "Our congressional delegation deserves praise for their successful effort to expand wilderness protection on behalf of Vermonters," the statement said.

    Douglas and the congressional office worked out a compromise before the November elections, under which about 6,000 acres near Glastenbury Mountain was removed from the wilderness designation proposal.

    Douglas administration spokesman Jason Gibbs didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on Friday's signing.

    Meg Mitchell, who took over as supervisor for the Green Mountain National Forest this summer, welcomed the news. She wasn't involved in rewriting the forest plan.

    "Passage of the act provided a missing piece of the puzzle to complete the picture of land uses across the federal forests in Vermont," Mitchell said. "No matter where people came out on the wilderness debate of the past few months, we now have an important opportunity to work together to implement management."

    Mitchell noted that there were differences between what the Forest Service had recommended earlier this year and what the congressional delegation got passed. The Forest Service proposed adding fewer new acres of wilderness to the forest. When Congress added more acreage, it included a new wilderness area, the 12,300-acre Battell Wilderness in the towns of Goshen, Hancock, Ripton and Rochester.

    Leanne Klyza Linck of the Wilderness Society, which was a member of the Vermont Wilderness Association, a group of more than a dozen state and regional environmental groups formed to promote the wilderness issue, said Bush's signature ended a long process.

    "The passage of this bill is a great victory for the residents of Vermont and New Hampshire who worked for years to see this dream realized," she said.

    "This is a gratifying day. It's a big day for all of Vermont's residents, whether you are a fisherman, a hunter, a pine marten or goshawk," she said.

    Opponents to the additional wilderness lands, some of whom also took issue with aspects of the U.S. Forest Service's new forest management plan, continue to be angry about what they view as a process that was hijacked.

    "This was an abuse of power by the congressional delegation by not allowing the appeals," said Steve McLeod of Bolton, spokesman for the Vermont Traditions Coalition. "The wilderness debate was trumped by the legislation ó that was one of the things we were complaining about."

    McLeod, Linck and Mitchell all said that the public doesn't fully understand what restrictions are applied to federally designated wilderness lands.

    Linck noted that public opinion surveys showed overwhelming support for additional wilderness, but McLeod said he thought people equated wilderness designation with what he called "Big Woods."

    "Everybody's for Big Woods," he said.

    Contact Susan Smallheer at susan.smallheer@rutlandherald.com
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