The latest of Vermont’s recurring battles over land use is raging in the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom. The issue is the use of a portion of the “Champion Lands” known as the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
In 1999 a group called the Conservation Fund put together a complex $26.5 million dollar deal to acquire 133,000 acres of Essex County forest lands. For generations the lands had been logged, and hunted, fished, camped and snowmobiled by the public.
The environmental groups and Governor Dean put enormous pressure on the 1999 legislature to appropriate $4.5 million to complete the deal immediately. Northeast Kingdom legislators rightly argued that if the legislature was to put $4.5 million in the Champion pot, there ought to be iron-clad guarantees protecting “traditional uses”, including logging, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and camps.
To allay their concerns, Gov. Dean wrote a detailed letter to the General Assembly. He stated that the taxpayers’ dollars would buy 22,000 acres for the state, plus easements controlling the uses of the 84,000 acres which were ultimately sold to a timber company. The Governor’s letter declared “These easements are strong assurances that the land will continue to be open and to be used as it is today.” On the strength of the Governor’s letter, Kingdom legislators went along with the deal.
In October the Agency of Natural Resources released its management plan, based on the easement it attached to the lands in 1999. The plan proposed to set aside 12,500 acres on West Mountain as a wilderness-type area. This set off alarms among sportsmen, snowmobilers, and Northeast Kingdom residents. A blizzard of enviro legal opinions justified the wilderness designation. In effect, the enviro lawyers converted “protection of traditional uses” into “protection from traditional uses.”
Now the Kingdom people who relied on the Governor’s 1999 letter believe that their trust has been deceived. Easement amendments produced by the enviro lawyers early in December do little to remedy the breach of trust.
The right remedy is resolution of the issue by the elected representatives of the people. The legislature should place restrictions on the Agency of Natural Resources and Housing and Conservation Board’s appropriations until the easement holders agree to amend it to reflect a clear legislative consensus. It’s possible that such a consensus might support the proposed West Mountain restrictions. The critics would probably accept that outcome, if it were produced by a process they viewed as legitimate, straightforward, fair and open. As it is, they have learned the hard way that the commitment in the Governor’s letter has long since become a worthless scrap of paper.
This is John McClaughry thanks for listening.
–John McClaughry is President of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.