Champion Land Deal May Be Undone by New Legislation

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The Vermont House will soon debate legislation that would undo parts of the Champion land conservation deal.

Three years ago the Legislature appropriated $4.5 million to buy and protect the Champion land. The property includes 130,000 acres in the Northeast Kingdom.

Now a key House committee and the House Republican leadership support many changes to the conservation plan.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

Governor Howard Dean says the Champion land deal is the cornerstone of his environmental legacy. The deal protected 130,000 acres of timber land. The property is open to the public and off-limits to development.

But some legislators are upset about a plan to ban logging on 12,500 acres of state land. This property is located in the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Besides the logging ban, some of the roads in the area could eventually be removed.

Republican House Speaker Walter Freed says the Legislature will soon revisit the issue. He says he helped get the bill passed three years ago.

But now he says the Legislature was misled about the state’s plan to restrict how the land could be used.

(Freed) “I convinced, I spoke before my Republican caucus and convinced them it was a good idea. Myself and John LaBarge, we went out on a line at that time to say, support the state, support the administration, support Howard Dean. ¿Bob Helm met with Howard Dean, had these assurances that these traditional uses would be maintained throughout this Champion land property.¿I think that having sold that to my caucus¿that retrospectively that’s not what happened here. They are concerned and they do expect to see some settlement come out of it.”

The legislation is now before the House Fish and Wildlife Committee. It grants perpetual leases to camp owners in the area. Right now, the leases expire 20 years after the life of the leaseholder.

The bill also gets rid of the ban on logging. In fact, it defines logging on the public land as “fully compatible with protection of natural resources.”

The House is expected to pass the bill. From there, it would go to the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Windsor Democratic Senator Dick McCormack chairs the Natural Resources Committee. He doesn’t want to tamper with the Champion land deal. And he says the state must be a careful steward of the public property:

(McCormack) I don’t think that it’s a proper use of the taxpayer’s hard earned money for the state to buy land and then not take care of it. People work hard for their tax dollars. And we use their money to buy this land. And that land belongs to the people of Vermont. It doesn’t just belong to the snow mobilers. It doesn’t just belong to the leaseholders of the camps¿. This land belongs to the people of Vermont and we have a right and an obligation to take good care of it.”

Under the 1999 Champion Land Deal, 84,000 acres of the property must be logged. McCormack says he wishes that more of the land had been off limits to logging.

The House may debate the Champion land legislation as early as next week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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