The bitter legislative struggle currently taking place over the Champion land in Vermonts Northeast Kingdom is creating some strange political bedfellows. Many of the traditional political alliances remain firmly in place: the loggers, for example, are still hugging the Republicans and the environmentalists are hugging the Democrats. But the states newest major political party, the Progressives, are planting themselves where few thought they would go advocating logging in an area designated as an ecological preserve.
To recap: The 133,000 acres of land formerly owned by the Champion Paper Corporation was purchased by a coalition of state, private and corporate interests in 1999 in a well-intentioned effort to preserve the land, guarantee public access to it, and maintain much of it as a working forest. But when the ideals were translated into a working plan, the battle lines were drawn between sports people and loggers, who are demanding unfettered access, and the environmentalists, who want to prohibit logging and motorized vehicles on the most ecologically sensitive 10 percent of the land.
The Progressive Partys figurehead, Anthony Pollina, a candidate for lieutenant governor, stunned many earlier this year when he appeared at a sportsmens forum and declared his support. Borrowing from the language of the loggers and snowmobilers, Pollina couches his opposition to the states plan in the terminology of good government. He claims the process that led to the preservation easements wasnt open to the public.
While I support the concept of protected wilderness areas, said Pollina, Im concerned about how this plan was put in place. We have to do this in an honest and upfront manner.
But to supporters of the states plan to prohibit commercial logging and motorized vehicles in just 12,500 acres, Pollinas reasoning doesnt hold up.
Its just not true that this process wasnt open, declares Representative David Deen, a member of the Houses Natural Resources Committee and the conference committee that wrangled countless hours over the plan. We took testimony, we hired experts, and we held hearings. This process was as open as any that Ive been a part of in the legislature.
Earlier this year, Pollina held his own private meeting with the two sides in the Progs Montpelier headquarters. The goal was to draft a compromise between the increasingly bitter foes to prove that he could build political bridges. It failed.
Weve compromised enough, declared Deen. I wanted 22,000 acres protected and to remain wild with old growth, and we cut that nearly in half. We all made compromises and reached an agreement, but now they want to start all over.
Pollina and his party, via an amendment introduced by Prog Representative Carina Driscoll of Burlington, have called for a compromise that would allow some logging on the protected land, but only logging that would benefit wildlife.
Thats just a foot in the door for loggers, said Anne Peterman, director of the Burlington-based Alliance for Social and Ecological Justice. While they claim this logging benefits wildlife, the truth is it only benefits the edge species like deer and grouse in the short term, while damaging hundreds of other sensitive species in the long run. Its a really old and discredited trick.
To many, Pollinas decision to support those working to scuttle the Champion land deal is a sad reminder of Bernie Sanders approach to environmentalists.
The Progressives are just pandering to Northeast Kingdom voters and taking their liberal base for granted, suggests Randy Koch, the chairman of the Progressive Partys town caucus in Calais. But what disturbs me most is that Pollina seems to be saying one thing to his liberal supporters and then something else to the loggers and snowmobilers.
Theres no question the so-called Bernie Repub-licans in the Northeast Kingdom are essential for any statewide Progressive Party victory. Sanders has spent more than a decade confounding political scientists with his appeal among largely conservative voters in the Kingdom. Pollina must be hoping that appeal will rub off on his own electoral efforts by standing up against state plans for the Champion lands.
Theres a high level of resentment among working people that the system isnt working for them, said Democrat Senator Dick McCormack. And Pollinas trying to do what Bernie did by tapping into that resentment. The problem is, Pollinas picked the wrong issue and the wrong enemy.
Pollina scoffs at such notions, asking, When did Dick McCormack become a political consultant?
Pollinas triangulation on the Champion land issue, however, is a far cry from the plainspoken populism the Progressive Party generally offers as an alternative to the two-party political system. On the one hand hes all for protected areas, but on the other hes planted himself firmly in the camp of those despising anything to do with public ownership and protection of land.
Brian Tokar, an author and environmental educator with the Plainfield-based Institute for Social Ecology, believes the problem is less about Pollina than the failure of the states environmental movement to build an effective grassroots base. Its not surprising that politicians would run to where the action is.
Every environmental group in Montpelier is vested almost totally in working behind the scenes in the legislature, says Tokar. Which means, unlike the property-rights folks, they dont have a grassroots presence, and theyre operating completely at the whim of the state bureaucracy to determine when they have a victory and when they dont.
With the legislature set to adjourn in the next couple of weeks, the issue of the Champion land will be settled soon. Theres only one sure outcome: No one will be entirely happy.
Michael Colby can be reached at email@example.com.