Senate Affirms Recreation on Champion Lands

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(Host) The Vermont House and Senate appear to be headed for a showdown over the former Champion timberlands in the Northeast Kingdom. The Senate rejected an amendment that would have changed the state’s management plan for the property.

The amendment that lost could have led to logging on the state-owned portion of the land.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) On Tuesday, the Senate once again reassured hunters, fishermen and trappers that they can use all of the former Champion lands.

The 133,000-acre parcel is located in Essex County. When the timber company sold the land in 1999, the state acquired 22,000 acres for a wildlife management area. The state wants to set aside 12,500 acres as a core ecological reserve where logging would be prohibited.

Easements on the property guarantee that the public can use all the land, including the core area, for hunting and fishing. The Senate has now unanimously passed a bill that would add another legal layer to those guarantees.

But Essex Orleans Republican Vince Illuzzi wanted the Senate to look more closely at the Champion deal. Illuzzi told the Senate that the state’s ban on logging ignores the wishes of local people:

(Illuzzi) “I can’t imagine any other state project of this size and impact on a region of the state that proceeded in a matter so contrary to the desires of local government and business leaders.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi offered an amendment that would require the state to work with a local citizens council to re-write the management plan. The new plan could allow logging. Illuzzi said the amendment would allow the state to make good on the promise made in 1999 to protect traditional uses in the area.

But Chittenden County Democrat Ginny Lyons said that the Legislature knew in 1999 that the state wanted to protect environmentally fragile areas on the property.

The Senate rejected Illuzzi’s amendment on a 15-13 vote. Democrats mostly voted to defeat the amendment while Republicans voted for it.

The senators then passed the bill that reaffirms the rights of hunters to use the area. The bill also sets up a Champion lands oversight committee that will study in five years how the land is being managed.

Windsor Democrat Dick McCormack said the Legislature should feel good about the Champion deal:

(McCormack) “And it’s sad that there’s been this bad taste in people’s mouths because of the tone of some of the opposition. No one double-crossed anybody. No one went beyond legislative intent. No one stepped outside statutory authority. No one’s rights are being taken. Our hunters and fishermen would have lost their rights if this land had gone into private development¿. We have taken a very definite step to preserve this land for traditional uses.”

(Dillon) The Senate is now on record as reaffirming the basic elements of the Champion deal. Legislation now in the House goes much further, and would overturn the state’s ban on logging.

That bill is expected to win support in the Republican-controlled House. A final resolution will likely be decided by a conference committee.

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

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