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Vermonters’ concerns should be heard

By Mark Shepard

posted October 6, 2006

Gov. Jim Douglas should be thanked for writing to the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Resources, advocating that those Vermonters most affected by wilderness expansion be afforded an opportunity to testify in Washington.

By contrast, I find it appalling that Sens. Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders, as representatives of Vermonters, object to Vermonters testifying before congressional committees on this topic. The most important responsibility a legislator has is to guarantee that the people he or she represents have a voice in the making of public policy.

While it is true that every person has a right to weigh in on national forests issues, our “Vermont” members of Congress are elected by “Vermonters” to represent “Vermonters,” not people and special interest groups beyond our borders. This is why we call them “our representatives.”

As a state legislator, I cannot imagine obstructing a constituent testifying in Montpelier, yet this is exactly how our three members of Congress responded, and their actions are wrong. Vermonters deserve an apology from Leahy, Jeffords, and Sanders followed by real action that ensures Vermonters have an opportunity to testify in Washington.

In 2004, I worked with several Vermonters to draft a resolution laying out the benefits of a managed forest with public access, as opposed to forever locking up these lands with the wilderness designation. The resolution called for no more wilderness and passed the Vermont House — the body closest to the people — 86 to 56, with bi-partisan support.

My hope was that this resolution would help clarify the negative aspects of more wilderness, and also send a message to our Washington delegation expressing exactly how much opposition there is in Vermont to expanding wilderness. Unfortunately, as far as our congressional delegation goes, the resolution seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

While there are many reasons not to expand wilderness, a major reason actually coincides well with one of the points in your editorial — to attract tourists. As stated in the resolution, U.S.D.A. surveys indicate that of the 3.5 million annual recreational site visits to the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, only about 1.4 percent occur within designated federal wilderness boundaries, and these visits to federal wilderness average only 13.7 hours in duration.”

In other words, lands designated as wilderness do not attract visitors, and there are reasons why: The exclusion of motorized vehicles makes the lands off limits to anyone who is unable to hike long distances. This would include handicapped people as well as most of our senior population and families with young children.

Yet, when you consider the vast number of visits to the non-wilderness areas, it is clear that these lands are very attractive. However, reasonable access is necessary for most people to enjoy and appreciate these lands. Wilderness does not allow such access.

It’s not only people who are no longer welcomed on lands designated as federal wilderness, but many animal species are forced out as well. A well-managed sustainable forestry program not only makes wise use of our renewable resources, it also is required for habitat for many animal species, such as deer, bear, and many bird types.

While the recent compromise proposal — reducing the wilderness in Glastenbury to what the U.S. Forest Service recommended — is a step in the right direction, it completely misses the most critical concern the governor raised — ensuring that the process in Washington does not overrun the citizens of Vermont.

I am sympathetic to the governor’s position of trying to help those Vermonters for whom expanding wilderness will put their livelihood and way of life at great risk, while at the same time not risking his good working relationship with our federal delegation.

However, this legislation should not move forward the until the appeals filed by three Vermont-based organizations are settled followed by giving Vermonters from the towns that have officially opposed more wilderness an opportunity to testify in Washington, as Gov. Douglas expressed. The members of the U.S. House Resource Committee need to understand the full story in Vermont.

I encourage Vermonters to read resolution JRH.52 (at www.leg.state.vt.us, 2003-2004 session), understand what is at stake, and do all we can to make sure those we send to Washington advocate for every Vermonter to be heard in Washington.

Mark Shepard is a Republican state senator who represents Bennington County and the town of Wilmington.