Despite an all-Republican delegation in New Hampshire, a hostile Vermont governor, and a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, wilderness advocates in New Hampshire and Vermont joined their respective wilderness bills together and succeeded in passing the New England Wilderness Act of 2006 shortly before the 109th Congress adjourned.
Promoting new wilderness in the Green Mountain National Forest has been a priority of the Sierra Club’s Vermont Chapter for the past seven years, says Chapter Chair John Harbison, and local activists were quick to tell the Forest Service that its initial proposal of 17,000 new acres of wilderness was too paltry. By the time the state's two Senators Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy and Represenative Bernie Sanders introduced the wilderness bill in Congress last April, the proposed acreage had more than doubled. But Vermont Governor James Douglas, a Republican, opposed the bill, even writing House Resources Chair Richard Pombo claiming there had been insufficient public input.
View of Vermont's Breadloaf Wilderness, which was expanded in the New England Wilderness Act of 2006. Photo by Don Dickson.
Meanwhile, across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, local activists' wilderness efforts were heating up. The White Mountains contain large swaths of roadless lands, says Upper Valley Group Conservation Chair Tom Van Vechten, and local groups Friends of the Sandwich Range and Friends of the Wild River lobbied vigorously for their designation as wilderness. But an influential local group, the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests, initially opposed the bill because they favored "working forests" where logging would be allowed. However, Van Vechten stresses that the Society became a significant supporter of the final bill, helping gain the support of citizens who might otherwise have been opposed.
Late New Hampshire Sierra Club activist Larry White in the newly protected Wild River area of New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest. Photo by Dan Yetter.
In Vermont, activists went door-to-door, sent letters to the editors of every daily and weekly paper in the state, and flocked to every public hearing. But what may have made the difference was their focus on the towns near the national forests and how wilderness could benefit them. They followed a similar strategy in New Hampshire, where ad-hoc groups like the Friends of the Sandwich Range and Friends of the Wild River built support for specific parcels of wilderness. New Hampshire Chapter Vice Chair Jim Sconyers took the lead in coordinating and writing a large part of the Sierra Club’s comments on the latest management plan for the White Mountain National Forest.
The national shift in the political landscape in the late summer contributed to the groundswell for wilderness, and when Douglas’s gubernatorial opponent in Vermont made wilderness a campaign issue, Douglas withdrew his opposition.
In the end, the bill protected 76,500 acres in all – 34,500 in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, and 42,000 in Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, as well as creating the 17,000-acre Moosalamoo National Recreation Area in Vermont.
Photos used with permission.