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The Enviornmental Oncologist

07/12/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange says his friend is one of the unsung heroes of Vermont: a biologist defending wildlife habitat against the constant spread of human development.

(Lange) I love getting letters from my pal, Jim. Fat, bulging envelopes. Inside, photocopies and a note stuck to the front page with either a smiling face or a sad face with a tear on its cheek. Jim's letters are dispatches from the front.

It's hard to believe that there's a war going on all around us. But it's true. Jim is a foot soldier in that war. He's a state wildlife biologist. But a better job description would be "environmental oncologist," because he's eternally fighting malignant growths. His steady stream of bulletins is a record of his never-ending battles. I think of him as a hero. He's one of those rare people with a feeling for wild animals and their prior, native rights. He calls them "critters." They range from porcupines to bear. And if you want to build a condominium in the critical habitat of any of his critters, you're going to have to do it over his chewed-up body.

I met Jim and his colleagues some years ago on a "dead deer count." We swept a patch of woods in a skirmish line, looking for bones of deer that had died the previous winter. Nothing escaped their notice. At the end of one sweep, they compared notes on the birds they'd heard. I hadn't noticed any; they had over 20 birds among them!

Counting dead deer doesn't sound much like a war. And it's not, unless habitat conditions dictate hunting to thin the herd. Then it's, Nellie bar the door! as every hunter in Vermont fires off a letter to the editor. But the real battles occur when a ski resort wants to expand into an unincorporated township, where the bear population lives in a small remnant habitat. This calls upon Jim for piles of documentation, visits to dozens of hearings, and the patience to endure sarcastic questions from hostile attorneys.

Most environmental statutes don't deal with abstracts like aesthetics, because they're subjective. So the law forces defenders of wildlife habitat or wilderness into balancing the "economic value" of wildlife against the economic value of development. That's very hard to do. But it can be done. Last week a glossy black bear loped across our driveway in front of me and Mother. Yesterday she said she wouldn't take a million dollars for the place, just because bears still live here.

The recent news from the front has been pretty good, and there've been a couple of smiling faces on the photocopies. The black bear habitat over near Killington won't get logged, at least for the moment. That's Jim's other problem: the projects just keep on coming, the pressure ever greater, the legal approaches ever more sophisticated. So, though there's a smiling face on a pile of papers that ends, "Application #2WO364-EB is hereby denied." He writes privately: "I really do believe, on my bad days, that our efforts are nothing more than holding actions. " For once, I really hope he's wrong.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.
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