House candidates disagree on wilderness allocation

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(Host) The two leading candidates for U.S. House disagree on how much land should be set aside as wilderness in Vermont.

The differences have emerged as Republican Martha Rainville and Democrat Peter Welch each try to appeal to voters on environmental issues.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Judging by the surrogates working on their behalf, the environment is a key issue in the U.S. House race.

Last week, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Junior campaigned for Democrat Peter Welch. Kennedy delivered a blistering speech that accused the Bush Administration of weakening pollution laws to help corporate campaign contributors.

And this week, former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman stumps for Republican Martha Rainville.

The environment is also the focus of Rainville’s latest TV ad. The commercial shows her paddling in a kayak

(Rainville Ad) “In Congress I will oppose any policies that threaten our forests and lakes, join the fight against global warming and push for a sound energy policy .”

(Dillon) Vermont’s congressional delegation is united in its support for more wilderness in the Green Mountain National Forest. A bill that passed the Senate would have protected 48,000 acres as wilderness. The bill stalled after Governor Jim Douglas objected. The governor now says he supports a compromise that would set aside 42,000 acres.

But Rainville says that’s still too much. In a speech last May, she opposed any additional wilderness land. She now says she supports the creation of about 27,000 acres – the same amount as the U.S. Forest Service has recommended.

(Rainville) “So I support the plan because of the public input. I think that’s key. That’s why I don’t support what the delegation tried to do in adding acres to the plan and in trying to get it pushed through Congress without public input.”

(Dillon) Democrat Peter Welch says he supported the original bill in Congress, and he backs the compromise as well. He says Rainville has been inconsistent in her positions on wilderness.

(Welch) “So she did change her position. And obviously that reflects I think an awareness that most Vermonters want to have a balance.”

(Dillon) Only Congress can create wilderness areas. And Welch says the bill is in trouble if Republicans keep control of the House and Senate.

(Welch) “The danger we have now is the whole thing has fallen apart. And the next Congress is going to have a whole new struggle about taking up this legislation. And if you have Republican leadership, they’re hostile to it, and it’s very clear Martha Rainville and I, on this question of the balance, and the role wilderness plays, we’re in significant disagreement.”

(Dillon) Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy says the Welch-Rainville race could be the contest that decides whether Vermont gets more wilderness. But Governor Douglas says the delegation has enough seniority to get the bill through in next month’s lame duck session.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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