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Wilderness

12/10/01 12:00AM

In mid-November, my daughter Charis, my friend Scott and I headed up to Middlebury for an evening meeting.

The occasion was the unveiling of a proposal to double the amount of land designated as "Wilderness" in the Green Mountain National Forest.

Now don't get confused. This plan by the Vermont Wilderness Association is not part of the state plan to protect former Champion Paper Company lands in the Northeast Kingdom.

This is an entirely different deal.

Well, not entirely different. The intent is the same in both: To minimize the impact of human activity on large tracts of land.

But the Wilderness Association's proposal applies to lands already within the National Forest. It recommends creating three new wilderness areas and expanding two others, all in the west central and in the southwest part of the state.

First, let's define wilderness.

It's a formal designation that can be applied only by an act of Congress, and only to federal lands. Traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and skiing can take place. Prohibited are road-building, logging, and motorized recreational vehicles.

Currently, about five percent of the US is designated wilderness. Most states have wilderness areas, ranging from fourteen percent of California, two percent of New Hampshire, and one percent of Vermont, which has six wilderness areas, totaling 60,000 acres.

The new proposal would bring the total in Vermont to about 130,000 acres, or about one-third of the state's National Forest.

Anyway, Scott, Charis and I arrived in Middlebury just in time to hear how the Forest Service views the proposal. Then came presentations from an environmental biologist, a forest products worker, and the Green Mountain Club.

One way this proposal differs from what's going on in the Northeast Kingdom is that nobody's mad at anybody else.

This is in part because two of the major irritants to the Northeast Kingdom proposal don't exist here: There are no hunting camps on this land, so nobody fears being displaced, and only 20 miles of snow-mobile trail would need to be relocated.

Still, there is controversy. From the standpoint of the Forest Service, congressional action on the proposal at this point would bypass the existing planning process.

The clearest opposition came from the Jonathan Wood of the Society of American Foresters. He emphasized that his organization supports wilderness. He called for caution and study. He cited the need to keep lands available for logging. He described the stages of growth in current Vermont forests; and spoke of the sometimes negative cultural, social and economic impacts of wilderness areas.

The Green Mountain Club's Ben Rose countered. He pointed out the small amount of timber currently taken from Vermont's National Forest, and described the positive impact large, connected tracts of wilderness have on biodiversity.

At the end of the formal presentations, Scott, Charis and I squeezed through the crowded aisles and left. We each had early morning commitments the next day, and a two-hour drive home.

The reasoning - and the reasoned approach - of those who cautioned against moving too fast gave us plenty of food for thought.

So we batted ideas around on the ride home. We read National Forest maps in the glow of oncoming headlights, paraphrased arguments, and played with statistics.

Then Scott began to reminisce about a stand of old-growth white pines he'd visited off Route seven in Arlington a while ago. Charis talked about the hundred-year-old hemlocks on the edge of our property, and I remembered standing amid thousand-year-old redwoods in northern California.

A little awestruck, Scott said.

"These guys aren't thinking about just a few years or decades from now. These guys are thinking ahead a hundred years. Five hundred years."

And we realized that what the Vermont Wilderness Association wants is for there to be large tracts of land throughout the state where nature has not only space, but the long reach of time, to do what it will, barely touched by human busyness. We fell silent, embraced by the dark of a Vermont night, conscious of the hulking mountains just to our east.

This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield, Vermont.

---Nick Boke is a minister and free lance writer.

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