Planning begins for expanded wilderness area

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(Host) Vermont’s congressional delegation is working on legislation to increase the amount of federally designated wilderness in the Green Mountain National Forest. Staffers say a bill will probably be introduced before the 108th Congress ends next fall.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) It’s been almost 20 years since the Vermont Wilderness Act of 1984 aside 60,000 acres of wilderness in Vermont. More than 100,000 acres have been added to the Green Mountain National Forest since then. But no new wilderness has been set aside.

Now Vermont’s two senators and Congressman Bernie Sanders say they’re hoping to change that. Suzanne Fleek is a staffer in Senator Patrick’s Leahy’s Washington Office.

(Fleek) “We think it’s the right time do a review of the entire forest and look at which areas and resources are appropriate for wilderness, but also which areas Vermonters want to see as wilderness.”

(Keese) Wilderness designation is a management strategy that basically allows nature to take its course. It leaves land open to hiking, camping fishing, hunting and other non-motorized recreation. It closes it to logging, snow mobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

For more than a year congressional staff have been meeting with the Forest Service and Vermonters representing differing forest interests. A wider outreach is planned as the legislation approaches the drafting stage.

The Vermont Wilderness Association, a coalition of 16 environmental groups, is one of the so called stakeholders involved in the preliminary talks. They’ve been working for years on a new wilderness proposal. In 2001 the alliance recommended 80,000 new acres for federal protection. Most of those are large roadless tracts. That would more than double the amount of wilderness set aside now.

(Jim Northup) “We’ve been talking to snowmobilers, representatives of the forest products industry. We’ve been very careful to craft a wilderness proposal that respects those other uses of the Green Mountain National Forest.”

(Keese) Jim Northup of the group Forest Watch co-chairs the Vermont Wilderness Association. He says recent scientific advances show more wilderness is needed to protect native species and that the majority of Vermonters want more wilderness.

The Wilderness Association’s proposal isn’t the only one in the works. The Green Mountain Forest is in the middle of the 15-year revision of its forest management plan.

A Forest Service inventory has identified areas that might be designated as wilderness. Since January the agency has been holding public meetings around the state. Paul Brewster is the forest supervisor for the Green Mountain National Forest.

(Brewster) “We’re hearing lots of people who have strong support for additional wilderness. We have folks that don’t want to see more wilderness. We hear from a lot of people who simply want to understand what are the tradeoffs if there was to be more wilderness.”

(Keese) Brewster says he’d like to let the forest planning process run its course before federal action is introduced. The forest plan revision is scheduled to come up with a preliminary decision in 2006. But Leahy’s office says that even after a bill is introduced it will take a long while to pass, and that many Vermonters want to see a proposal on the table soon.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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