Legislators Disagree on Intent of Champion Land Deal

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(Host) The Champion land purchase was once called the land protection deal of the century. Now it’s this year’s legislative showdown. And like any intense political fight, the debate often turns on who said what, and when.

VPR’s John Dillon takes a closer look.

(Dillon) Were lawmakers misled three years ago? That question is at the center of the debate over the Champion lands.

In 1999, the Legislature overwhelming approved the Champion land deal. The idea was to control the future of thousands of acres that were being sold by the paper company.

Now some of the same House members who voted for the deal have sponsored legislation to unravel it. Opponents say they were blind-sided when, this summer, the state unveiled a plan to ban logging on 12,500 acres. That’s about 9% of the total Champion acreage.

So was that plan clear at the time?

Bob Helm is a Castleton Republican who was chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Committee in 1999. Helm told a Senate committee recently that the Legislature had no idea the state wanted to halt logging in the new “special treatment area,” or STA.

(Helm) “What it says in the 1999 legislation, what the governor agreed on in the 1999 legislation, is not what’s spelled out in the STA. And I just don’t think it’s right.”

(Dillon) But Senator Dick McCormack challenged Helm’s recollection of the 1999 debate. McCormack, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says he knew the state was going to protect some of the land.

(McCormack) “I would never have supported the purchase without the clear understanding that we would be protecting some of that acreage¿. If the Agency of Natural Resources has done something inconsistent with those words on the page, then we have a problem. If we don’t, then it apparently means that some members of the House didn’t know what they were doing when they voted.”

(Dillon) There are broader, political issues at play in the debate. The Vermont House has changed hands since 1999, when the Champion deal was approved. The Republican leadership now wants to rein in the authority of state agencies. They say the 1999 law did not tell the Agency of Natural Resources to establish a core ecological reserve where logging would be banned.

But a transcript of committee hearings from 1999 shows that the commissioner of Forests and Parks did make reference to protecting sensitive areas.

Conrad Motyka is the commissioner. He says he told lawmakers that his top priority for the state land was to protect the natural communities found in the West Mountain Area. Motyka now says that he could have provided more details about what the state had in mind.

(Motyka) “I didn’t use the word ‘ecological core’ at that time because we hadn’t evolved to calling it that, but we certainly called it¿sensitive ecological areas¿ . We wanted the good timberlands to be in private ownership so we could meet that commitment on the private lands.”

(Dillon) Camps built on the land are another matter. A proposal in the House gives 73 camp owners perpetual leases on their property. Champion renewed their leases every five years. The 1999 law gave the owners lifetime leases, plus 20 years. The camp owners are aggressively lobbying to get a better deal.

Steve McLeod has a camp on the former Champion lands:

(McLeod) “I think that those that want to be should be there. And I think that a culture that’s meant so much for me should be passed on to generations well after myself and fellow camp members are gone¿.”

(Dillon) Motyka, the Forest and Parks commissioner, says the state cannot support perpetual leases for the camp owners:

Contributing to the debate is the fact that the Champion land deal was complicated and involved. It included state and federal agencies and private conservation groups.

The goal was to protect traditional uses – such as logging, hunting and snowmobiling – and to keep the property out of the hands of developers.

The state owns 22,000 acres. That includes the West Mountain area with its 74 rare and threatened species. The federal government owns 26,000 acres. A private timber company owns 84,000 acres, or about two thirds of the property. The public can hunt, fish, hike and ride snowmobiles throughout the 133,000 acres. There’s an unusual legal requirement that says the 84,000 acres of private land must be logged.

And now, because of the politics and the disagreement over who said what and when, there’s proposed legislation. A bill in the House would open the state’s 12,500-acre parcel to logging as well.

Commissioner Motyka doesn’t want to lift the ban. He says the 1999 law was quite specific about the need to conserve the property:

(Motyka) “It’s not often we have the Legislature tell us rather specifically how to manage public lands. They did that in this case.”

(Dillon) Soon, the Vermont House will debate the Champion issues. And it’s possible the conservation deal that was supposed to last forever may fall apart within a few years.

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

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