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Preserving Wilderness

07/12/04 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(Host) Commentary John McClaughry says that the contemporary struggle for control of the wilderness is actually a very old one.


(McClaughry) In the year 1297, King Edward I of England was forced to sign a document called the Charter of the Forest. It has a peculiar relevance to an issue now hotly debated in Vermont.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, King William the Conqueror moved swiftly to take personal control of ultimately one third of the land of England. It took the Saxons almost three hundred years of suffering and servitude before they won their struggle to regain their immemorial rights to make use of their national forests.

This ancient struggle is being played out again in Vermont today. The Vermont Wilderness Association, a coalition of 15 environmental groups, wants the King in far-off Washington - Congress - to lock up 79,000 acres of the Green Mountain National Forest as permanent wilderness.

"Wilderness", in federal law, is extremely restrictive. It prohibits private motorized vehicles. No timber harvesting. No chain saw clearing of deadfalls across trails. No wildlife habitat management. The only technology allowed is hidden tread sensors and even video cameras, so the government can find out what visitors are doing.

In 1975 the wilderness advocates demanded, and got, 17,300 acres of designated wilderness at Bristol Cliffs and Lye Brook. Nine years later the wilderness people were back demanding another 100,000 acres. That time they got 42,000 more.

Now they're demanding another 79,000 acres, mainly to force the human race to atone for its crimes against the environment. The opponents want traditional multiple use management to continue, and say that the 60,000 acres already locked up are more than enough.

Well, why not designate more wilderness? For the simple reason that federal designation forever prohibits ordinary Vermonters from having any say over the use of the people's forest. As one wilderness opponent testified to Congress in 1984, "If all power to influence decisions [about the Forest] is stripped from us by the act of a Congress half a thousand miles away, what is left of our right to participate in civic decision making? What becomes of our chance to participate, to debate, to challenge, to propose, to resolve, to vote - those features of Vermont government which have for two centuries distinguished our little state, and made its sons and daughters, however humble their station in life, proud to be Vermonters?"

On April 6 the Vermont House, on an 86-56 vote, adopted a resolution opposing even one acre of additional federal wilderness designation. The House's predecessors in 13th century England, who forced an imperious king to give back their forest, would have understood, and applauded.

This is John McClaughry - thanks for listening.

John McClaughery is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.
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