Wilderness designation ignites land use debate

Print More

(Host) A plan to more than double the federally designated wilderness in Vermont’s national forest has tempers flaring in some towns. Wilderness can only be designated by Congress. In the East, where there’s little untouched land, it’s a forest management approach that minimizes human impact over the long term.

Hunters, campers, hikers and skiers are allowed in Wilderness Areas. Mechanized vehicles and logging are not. In towns where generations have worked and played in what are now public lands, that cuts pretty close to home.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Clem Morse was a logger until arthritis forced him into other lines of work. Now he runs a small sawmill behind his house in the Bennington County town of Sunderland. It’s in a narrow valley pressed against the slopes of the Green Mountain National Forest.

(Morse) “You can see it setting up there. It’s gorgeous.

(Keese) The 52-year old father of six has always worked and hunted these hills:

(Morse) “The Kelley Stand’s over here, and Bacon Hollow’s over there. And this ridge here, it doesn’t have a name, except for I call it Clem’s Ridge – ha, ha.”

(Keese) Morse cut the pine logs for his house from a timber sale up there. That might not be possible for his son.

(Clem) “They want to take 80 percent of our town! They [have] taken most of the town of Sunderland and putting it off limits to ever cutting a log again.”

(Keese) That’s if a proposal by the Vermont Wilderness Association becomes reality. The Association is a coalition of environmental groups. Its members want to see 78,000 new acres in the Green Mountain National Forest set aside as forever wild.

A hundred thousand acres have been added to the national forest since the last wilderness was established 20 years ago. Vermont’s congressional delegates have all spoken in favor of permanently protecting some of that. They haven’t said how much yet.

Richard Andrews is an advocate for Forest Watch, one of the Wilderness Association’s member groups. He sees plenty of good reasons to set some land aside.

(Andrews) “One of them is to have places where scientific research can determine over decades and centuries determine what happens to land when it’s not manipulated by people. It’s a refuge for certain kinds of wildlife that thrive better in forests that become eventually largely old growth. And it’s a refuge too for people who want to get away from civilization for a little bit.”

(Keese) But like others who’ve worked the land for generations, Clem Morse believes a healthy forest is one that’s actively managed. He says the woods are wild enough already without banning logging and the kind of clearing that attracts deer and other game.

(Morse) “That’s where I shot the bear and the buck on top of that ridge here.”

(Keese) Climbing a rocky jeep trail in his four wheel drive pickup, Morse worries about his own future here if wheels become off-limits.

(Morse) “See I drive up here because my knees have arthritis and I can’t walk like I used to. Once you get to a certain age you just don’t have that ability to move. But yet you shouldn’t lose your ability to go on the mountain.”

(Keese) But when it comes to environmental degradation, scientists say roads are the worst.

(Steve Trombulak) “They bring about changes in water quality, tree health.”

(Keese) Steve Trombulak teaches conservation biology at Middlebury College.

(Trombulak) “They introduce exotic species along the roadsides, they have effects on the populations that live in the area through both road kill and the effects on the animals’ behavior. So by designating areas of wilderness you are essentially preventing the single most detrimental usage and that is road building.”

(Keese) Sunderland, where Morse lives, is one of at least eight national forest towns that have opposed adding new wilderness.

Recently in Montpelier, the Republican-dominated House echoed those sentiments. They passed a resolution urging the congressional delegation not to designate more wilderness. The resolution says adding new wilderness will harm more Vermonters than it will help, especially in the timber and recreation industries. The resolution’s key backers were from Bennington County, where two-thirds of the new areas would be.

(Ellen Viereck) “The people in southern Vermont are screaming particularly loudly because a great majority of the proposed wilderness areas are in Bennington County.”

(Keese) Seventy-five-year old Ellen Viereck of Shaftsbury is on the Forest Watch board.

(Viereck) “Romance Mountain is up north and we’d like to have that become wilderness, and additions to the Breadloaf wilderness up near Middlebury and Waitsfield. But down here we have two whole townships with no people in them!”

(Keese) Actually, the discontinued towns of Somerset and Glastenbury have a few residents each. The Wilderness Association Plan would open Somerset to snowmobiles and possibly ATVs. But Glastenbury Mountain would be closed to wheeled vehicles.

Like other parts of Bennington County, the mountain has become a Mecca for snowmobilers from all over the northeast. Viereck says that’s a problem for people looking for peace and quiet.

(Viereck) “You can’t ski in Woodford and Searsburg anymore. Most of the places that we used to go aren’t safe to ski on weekends because there’s too many snowmobiles roaring around.”

(Keese) Advocates on both sides have heard most of these arguments before. Paul Brewster, the National Forest supervisor in Vermont, has been getting an earful of it lately. The forest service is currently reviewing its 15-year forest management plan. For well over a year, they’ve been hashing out land-use scenarios at public meetings around the state.

The current plan, adopted in 1987 was considered a model of compromise. The timber industry, snowmobilers, hunters, and wilderness advocates all walked away relatively satisfied. But much of the promised timber harvest never happened. Part of that, Brewster says, has to do with lawsuits and appeals filed by environmental advocates.

(Brewster) “That is making the process this time more challenging out there in the public in terms of the contentiousness or divisiveness you see right now.”

(Keese) Brewster says the timber in the national forest is considered especially valuable because it isn’t managed primarily with economics in mind.

(Brewster) “Those in the wood products industry will tell you that some of the most valuable timber in the state is on the national forest because it’s land where we’ve allowed trees to grow larger and longer.”

(Keese) Much of that land was cleared for agriculture a century ago. People in the forest trades say that’s proof that logging can be environmentally sustainable. It’s the miracle of Vermont they say: the woods grow back. Wilderness advocates say it isn’t possible to know that without taking some land out of circulation and waiting a century or so to see what happens.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

Comments are closed.