Yogi Berra's famous phrase is right on the money with this one. The New England Wilderness Bill that was just passed unanimously by the Senate has been left unaddressed as the House adjourns for its Fall recess. There is still a chance it might be taken up by the lame duck session that convenes after the November 7th elections but there are two House bills - one for Vermont and one for New Hampshire - and either of these or the combined Senate version could be the one that representatives decide to consider. They could also do nothing.
On the surface this is not particularly surprising. The House leadership is by no means as supportive of designating additional wilderness areas on federal lands as their colleagues in the Senate. The fact that a US circuit Justice reinstated the Clinton Roadless Areas on the same day that the Senate passed the New England Wilderness bill has political repercussions as well. Unquestionably the environment is a legitimate issue this election cycle- with global warming, renewable energy and California's new greenhouse gas reduction law prominent in the headlines - but in Vermont it is going to be a highly significant factor indeed, with Republican Governor Douglas and Republican Senate candidate Richard Tarrant publicly opposing the wilderness expansion bill and Vermont's Democratic and Independent congressional delegation strongly endorsing it.
Douglas upped the ante as soon as the Senate endorsed the Wilderness bill, writing on Sept 21st to Representative Pombo (R-CA) , Chair of the House Resources Committee, and his colleague Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) urging the House to reject or modify the Senate bill. This has provoked a storm of controversy, with accusations that the Governor's action intentionally derailed the legislation. Vermont's congressional delegation wrote to the Governor expressing their disappointment in his response to the bill, and editorial and opinion pages of several Vermont papers use stronger language:
"The fact is that Douglas' letter to Pombo killed the wilderness bill, or at least wounded it seriously. Pombo was ready to approve a bill including wilderness areas in both New Hampshire and Vermont, but after reading the letter from Douglas, he yanked the Vermont wilderness out of the bill.
Douglas is disingenuous if he expresses surprise at that result. Pombo is one of the most anti-environmental members of Congress, and Douglas' concern about the bill gave Pombo ample grounds to sidetrack the Vermont portion of the bill."
- Barre Montpelier Times Argus editorial Sept 28, 2006
While many Vermonter's support the additional wilderness, including a high percentage of the 10,000 public comments received on the wilderness designation during the Forest Service planning process, there are also voices in opposition. There is even disagreement, at least in Letters to the Editor, as to which opinion is in the majority, as this sample from the Burlington Free Press illustrates:
"Vermonters have overwhelmingly demanded more wilderness. Vermont deserves her forests protected and cherished. Gov. Douglas deserves another job."
"Congratulations to Gov. Jim Douglas for standing up for the majority of Vermonters and opposing further "Wilderness" designation in the Green Mountain National Forest. The overwhelming majority of Vermonters have expressed opposition to expansion of acreage under this non-management scheme despite the claims of radical preservationist groups."
"Whatever names Gov. Jim Douglas merits, he does not deserve to be called a "Vermonter." Numerous surveys show that a majority of Vermonters are in favor of setting aside more wild land for future generations and protecting rootless areas from the destruction wrought by ATVs and clear-cutting. Moreover, real Vermonters are a civil lot who engage in fair and honest discourse and do not resort to the vile tactics Douglas and, for that matter, his Republican colleague, Rich Tarrant have perpetrated on this state. "
"Douglas has correctly considered and addressed the benefits and concerns of all the residents of Vermont. Sadly our congressional delegation has not done so, instead choosing to malign the majority of Vermonters in favor of the special interest groups who donate heavily to their campaign coffers. Thank you, Gov. Douglas!"
In all this hyperbole, a few points seem worth restating:
- The Senate bill creates no new federal conservation land. It reclassifies existing conservation land as wilderness, the first to be so classified in more than two decades.
- There is enough forest land in Vermont to meet the needs and interests of most constituencies, but not all uses should be accommodated at every site. There is plenty of land for hunting, fishing, timber operations and handicapped access. There is not enough wilderness to maintain those natural resources that must have large intact forests without commercial timber harvesting to persist in Vermont.
- The relationship between those who live on the land and the government that holds public lands in trust has never been an easy one. The best outcomes result from transparent and collaborative processes that engage local constituencies and value local priorities. The process that created the USFS Forest Plan for the Green Mountain National Forest and informed the content of the New England Wilderness Bill appears to have been a very open one, and not an end run that tried to bypass the will of the people.
It may be too late for this bill, but it is not too late for Vermonters to make their desires known at the ballot box. That is one clear measure, at least, that should settle whether a majority of Vermonters favor or oppose designating more wilderness in the Green Mountain State.