Legislature Still Divided on Champion Reserve Lands

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(Host) As the Legislature moves toward a possible weekend adjournment, strong disagreements still exist between the House and the Senate. One split is over the future use of the state’s portion of the Champion lands.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) It’s an issue that has divided the House and the Senate from the very start of the session. On three separate occasions, the House has passed bills and resolutions calling for major changes in the existing management plan for 12,500 acres of forestland in the northeast Kingdom known as West Mountain.

Some House members are very upset that the state is creating a core ecological area on these lands but supporters of the core argue that most recreational uses, like hunting, fishing and hiking will still be permitted in the area. Opponents are concerned that logging will not be permitted in the core area and that the guarantees for the recreational activities are not strong enough. There are also concerns about the length of leases for private camps in the region.

House Institutions Committee Chairman Bob Wood wants the management plan to be reviewed by the Legislature before any core area is established:

(Wood) “My impression is that there’s a lot of support among a good segment of the hunting, sporting, outdoor population that feels something should be straightened out up ther, should be fixed. They’re in favor of – it’s a wildlife management area. It was not set up as a wilderness area, there’s no mention made of that. Originally certain areas were going to be protected, but not the whole 12,500 acres – at least as far as we’re concerned.”

(Kinzel) Senate Natural Resources Chairman Dick McCormack says he’s willing to compromise with the House over some issues but changing the nature of the core area is not one of them:

(McCormack) “That’s not really on the table. First of all, I think it would be unconstitutional, but secondly it would be a bad policy. The opponents of the core area have been so vocal that the discussion often sort of almost seems to presume that there’s a problem having the core area that we’ve got to solve. The only problem is that some people don’t like it. It’s really very good reasonable policy.”

(Kinzel) The discussions over the Champion issue are taking place in the context of a Senate bill that clarifies the recreational uses of the core area. But the issue was also included as part of the House’s capital construction bill. So if the House cannot make substantial changes to the Senate bill, it’s very likely that House leaders will continue the fight as negotiations over the capital bill heat up.

The capital bill contains just over $50 million in funds for sewer projects, water treatment efforts and school construction work. It’s not clear if the House will be willing to block passage of this bill if it doesn’t win major concessions on the Champion issue.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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