Dean, hunters agree resolve Champion lands dispute

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(Host) Governor Howard Dean and a group representing Vermont hunters say they’ve resolved one of the most contentious issues of the last legislative session. Late last week, Dean signed an executive order that guarantees hunters will have access to all parts of the Champion timberlands in the Northeast Kingdom. The sportsmen had complained that they could have been excluded from a state-owned ecological reserve that’s part of the property.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) With his signature on an executive order, Governor Dean says he’s put an end to an issue that snarled the Legislature in weeks of debate last winter. The order says hunters and fishermen will be able to use all of the 22,500-acre West Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The property is owned by the state and is part of the 133,000-acre parcel once owned by the Champion paper company.

The state property includes an 11,000-acre ecological reserve. Although state officials insisted that sportsmen would never be excluded from the land, the hunters wanted a formal guarantee. Dean says the executive order settles the issue once and for all.

(Dean) “We made a commitment when we signed the bill and when we got the $4.5 million appropriation to do what we have now done. I felt it was very important to keep our words on that. And it got very complicated in the legislative session and I think everybody, after we took a step back and had an opportunity, decided that establishment of sportsmen’s rights was very, very critical. And that’s what we did.”

(Dillon) The executive order also creates a citizen oversight council that will advise the state on how to manage the property.

Bill Leipold of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs says hunters and fishermen should be happy with the agreement.

(Leipold) “This has been an outstanding result for the sportsmen of the state of Vermont, representing a good faith effort in negotiations between all the involved parties. So I’m very pleased on behalf of the sportsmen that we’ve accomplished this.”

(Dillon) But not everyone involved in the Champion dispute was pleased. Steve McLeod represents camp owners who lease land in the area. The leases now run for the lifetime of the camp owner, plus 20 years. Last winter, McLeod lobbied the Legislature to make those leases permanent. But he says the camp leases aren’t extended in the recent settlement.

(McLeod) “I’ve reviewed the agreement and it appears very vague. It appears the ecological core area may continue to exist. The camp culture is not addressed. So it looks like, while this may have been a good effort on the federation’s part, that a legislative solution is still needed.”

(Dillon) But Governor Dean says the Champion debate won’t need to be revisited by a future Legislature or governor.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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