Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s columnist.
There was some unhappiness. Mountain bikers wanted to be allowed on more trails. Some anglers were annoyed that the Fish & Wildlife Department was still trying to bring back the salmon. Perhaps a third of the 65 or so people on hand said they didn’t want any more roads closed. One observer noted “lots of energy in the room,” some of it clearly negative.
But much of it not. And for anyone who remembers the tumult of 1999 and 2000 here in Island Pond, the scene in the Brighton Elementary School Tuesday evening was a model of serenity and decorum.
Back then, hundreds of angry locals would fill a nearby auditorium to fulminate against what some of them considered an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs if not a threat to their way of life.
The threat announced itself loudly enough to hit the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post late in 1998. The Champion International paper company had found a buyer for 294,000 acres of forest in the Northeast, 132,000 of them in Vermont.
This time the buyer was not another timber company. It was the Conservation Fund based in Arlington, Va., which did not intend to keep the property. Instead, in an intricate, multi-faceted arrangement largely orchestrated (at least for the Vermont acreage) by then-Gov. Howard Dean, the land was split into three unequal portions.
Some 22,000 acres was bought by the state and 26,000 by the federal government. The remaining 84,000 acres was sold to another logging firm but with conditions, easements held by conservation organizations that limited the extent of the logging and made sure the land remained open to the public.
So the land – as large as any unspoiled, unbroken tract in the Northeastern United States – would be preserved – “available forever” in the words of Fish & Wildlife scientist John Austin Tuesday night. Most of it would remain part of the job-producing timber base. Some would be managed lightly if at all to protect ecological integrity and biological diversity. What was not to like?
A lot, at least in parts of the Northeast Kingdom, where some folks found terms such as ecological integrity and biological diversity subversive if not alien. The thought of the state and federal governments taking over some of the land inspired complaints of a “government land grab.” Some were enraged at the Fish & Wildlife Department’s decision to create a 12,500-acre “core area” – essentially a mini-wilderness — in the center of the section it controlled, the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, by far the largest such area in the state.
Essex County did not quite rise up in rebellion. But at times it seemed close to it. At meetings and in letters to the editor, residents assailed governments, meddling outsiders, environmentalists, scientists, and sometimes science itself. As is common in such cases, patently false allegations – such as that the state and/or environmentalists wanted to ban fishing and hunting in the region – were widely believed.
Things seem to have calmed down. The evidence indicates that Essex County has accepted, if not entirely embraced, the new reality of what officials call the Kingdom Heritage Lands (though “former Champion Lands” remains in common use). Rep. Connie Quimby, the Republican from Concord who represents much of the county, said she had “not heard from my constituents” about the subject of Tuesday’s gathering – public comment on Fish & Wildlife’s proposed plan for managing the state’s 22,000 acres. And no one at the meeting bothered to object to West Mountain being under state control.
As Steve McLeod of the Vermont Traditions Coalition noted, the department chose a format that discouraged expressions of outright dissent. Audience members were asked to refrain from comments until the meeting broke into subgroups, where they would ask questions and make their feelings known, sometimes by writing them on posters with markers.
But not everyone went along with that request, and still there were no angry outbursts or regrets that the Wildlife Management Area existed at all.
Not that acceptance is universal. McLeod, whose Traditions Coalition will meet with Fish & Wildlife officials separately next week, said his organization’s major goal is to “shrink the size of (West Mountain’s) core area” because “managed land is better for wildlife.”
Arguably true, if the definition of “wildlife,” is limited to “game animals.” Other wildlife tends to thrive best in wilder terrain, and the core area is home to several rare or threatened plant and animal species constituting “significant natural communities.”
For at least two reasons, that core area will not shrink. One reason is that while Fish & Wildlife has to consider the views of the locals, its responsibility is to everyone in the state, where there is ample support for the department’s management plan. Besides, tampering with the core area might not be legal. Management of the land is governed in part by an easement held by The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, both of which are committed to enhancing the wild land values the core embodies.
That easement may also come into play in the one truly controversial part of Fish & Wildlife’s proposed management plan for the next 10 years, closing about 11 miles of nine little-used back-country roads, which is less than a third of the total miles in the WMA. Almost 90 percent of the area would remain a mile or less from a point accessible by car.
Still, many of the comments voiced and written on the posters objected to any more road closings at all. Sen. John Rodgers, the Glover Democrat who was the only other legislator in the room besides Quimby, said the only negative comment he’d heard from his constituents was the fear that closing the roads would “limit access to some people.”
“People have accepted the original deal,” Rodgers said later, “but they don’t want to give up more rights.”
The department wants to close these roads because vehicle traffic “changes the ecology of an area,” according to Fish & Wildlife scientist Doug Morin. Wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander noted that vehicles killed snakes and amphibians and brought in exotic invasive species, including phragmites, the fast-growing reed which is becoming a problem in the area.
One reason local residents seem to “have accepted the original deal,” as Rodgers put it, is that almost none of the dire predictions of those who opposed the 1998 transaction have come to pass. The land remains open to fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation. The federal land, part of the Silvio Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, has drawn some tourists, and logging continues on the private land, now owned by the Seattle-based Plum Creek Co.
But the more optimistic predictions of advocates of the Champion sale haven’t come to fruition, either. There has been no boom in tourism for bird-watching, outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing or eco-tourism. A little bit of all of that occurs, but not nearly as much as the land and wildlife could support.
Joel Cope, the administrative assistant of the town of Brighton, says the local business community hasn’t taken full advantage of the Kingdom Heritage Lands because it has “been having all our eggs in one basket – snowmobiling.”
Island Pond is a major snowmobile destination in winter largely, Cope said, because the town’s businesses “promoted it, advertised it. We could do the same thing with hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing.”
So far, though, local entrepreneurs have not made a concerted effort to attract this kind of tourist. Cope said there are “only so many people with so much time” who can’t do everything at once.
The new management plan gives them 10 more years to try.