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Camps in the woods

01/28/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert

Two weeks ago the Vermont House passed a resolution calling for changes to how the state will manage the huge Northeast Kingdom parcel known as the "Champion lands."

These are the 133,000 acres that the state and various nonprofit groups bought from Champion International, the paper company, in 1999.

State environmental regulators have developed a land use management plan that tries to balance so-called "traditional uses" with the wild beauty of the place. Controversy has centered on 12,500 acres that the state wants to establish as a "core reserve". Hunting, fishing and snowmobiling would be allowed there, as in all other areas -- but not logging.

It seems a bit odd that a disagreement over just one use in one-tenth of the entire tract could create such a big stir. And it is odd -- until you add the emotional issue of private camps. There are 73 such camps in the core reserve. And it is those 73 wilderness cabins that drove nearly 150 House members to spend a substantial chunk of legislative time in debate the other week.

What's curious about House members' attention to this issue is that the folks with the camps don't really own them. They may own the structures, but the land beneath them was leased from the previous owner, Champion. Those leases expired when Champion sold out three years ago.

However, the camp residents feel that they're entitled to stay. They know that they have no legal claim to their camps. Instead, they're arguing that they deserve to keep the camps because they've always had them.

Viewed from the perspective of property deeds and property rights, this is an unusual position to take. Squatters argue that they should be able to gain title to land that they've settled and improved, and that argument is sometimes recognized. But the camp owners' situation is different. They had entered into lease agreements with the recognized owner, Champion, and they knew that the leases would end when Champion no longer owned the land.

I suspect that what the camp residents are really doing is negotiating to hold on to a Vermont that just doesn't exist anymore. Many Vermont families once had a hunting camp in the woods or a fishing camp on a lake. Often it was questionable who actually owned what. But there was so much land and so many lakes that it didn't seem worth the trouble to take care of legal niceties. Over the years, as Vermont became more popular as a place to visit and to move to, the legal status of many of these camps was called into question. Leases -- if they did exist at all -- were examined.

In the past, when the state faced situations of private camps existing on land that became public, it usually allowed the leaseholders to keep their camps during their lifetimes but not to pass them on to their heirs. So, the state thought it was giving the Champion land campers a very fair deal when it agreed to lifetime leases, PLUS 20 years beyond that. These terms are even more favorable than those ever extended by Champion. And another public entity -- such as the federal government -- would likely offer much less.

It's sad that what's been happening in the rest of Vermont is now finally also happening in the Northeast Kingdom. Land has become a valuable commodity. Wilderness areas are scarce. A tract like the Champion lands is a public treasure.

What's sadder still is that politicians are grabbing this issue to flex their political muscle. The vote in the House was a party affair. Fully 63 of the House's 82 Republicans sponsored the resolution. Only six Democrats signed on. And interestingly it's only political muscle that was flexed in this action. The resolution is nonbinding, so it carries no legal or administrative weight -- only political weight. But of course, political weight is sometimes all you need to get your way.

This is Allen Gilbert.

--Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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