Wilderness acreage still controversial in national forest management

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(Host) This week, the Forest Service held its fourth and final open house on its draft management plan for the Green Mountain National Forest. Dozens of people turned out for the meeting in Montpelier. And as VPR’s John Dillon reports, the issue of wilderness divides those who love the forest.

(Dillon) In a crowded hotel ballroom, a professional facilitator hired by the Forest Service appealed to all sides to find common ground.

(Facilitator) “What do you have in common? One common value. You’re all here because of what?”
(Voice answers) “We’re interested in the forest.”

(Facilitator) “Interested in the forest. I don’t care what you’re point of view is, because your values will dictate that. And I don’t care how much discussion and debate you have about different issues. But there is one thing that you are the same about: you care about what happens in this forest.”

(Dillon) Passions run high about the 400,000 acre public forest. That was evident at a news conference organized by wilderness advocates shortly before the information session. A person in a moose costume joined students from Montpelier High School, the mayor of Montpelier and others to make the case that not enough land is set aside as forever wild.

Pastor Barbara Lemmel from the United Methodist Church in Montpelier spoke about wilderness from the faith perspective.

(Lemmel) “We have a responsibility to care for the least and the last, not only in human beings but also around creation. And in this situation, the least and the last are those species and those areas of land that would be immeasurably lost if they were not preserved as wilderness area.”

(Dillon) But representatives of the timber industry are strongly opposed to more wilderness. Ed Larson represents the Forest Products Association.

(Larson) “The only thing that we have heard that supports wilderness is a social reverence. The term reverence doesn’t seem to really resonate very well for the people in the industry, because we make a living from the timber products that come from the land. And when we’re told we can no longer access the timber on these lands because of reverence, we’d like to know how that pays the bills.”

(Dillon) The Forest Service wants to add about 18,000 acres of wilderness to the 59,000 acres that exist now. But Jamey Fidel of the Vermont Natural Resources Council says that the government’s own research makes a strong case for much more land to be protected.

(Fidel) “Why should we have more? The Forest Service has shown there can be substantially more wilderness, upwards of 80,000 more acres of wilderness-like landscapes, and still provide for a very strong timber economy on the forest, provide for a substantial amount of early successional habitat for hunting. So for folks to object to wilderness on timber and hunting grounds is unfounded.”

(Dillon) The use of all-terrain vehicles is another hot button issue in the forest plan. Although ATVs could have been allowed under the existing plan, the Forest Service never developed trails or formally approved the off-road vehicles. The Forest Service now says that 47 percent of the land could be considered for ATV use in the future. The vehicles would be limited to connector trails that link trail networks on private land.

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

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