“Our members attended every public meeting on the draft management plan, enlisted their state representatives in support of wilderness, went door-to-door, and sent letters-to-the-editor to every daily and weekly newspaper in the state,” says Vermont Chapter Chair John Harbison. Chapter members responded to every letter-to-the-editor critical of more wilderness, and the campaign focused on towns most affected by management of the national forest, driving home the point that wilderness is good for local economies.
The bill introduced by Senators Jim Jeffords (I) and Patrick Leahy (D) and Representative Bernie Sanders (I) proposes nearly double the amount of new wilderness recommended by the Forest Service. Jeffords says that while some Vermonters dispute the need for more wilderness, “I recognize the intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and believe deeply in the benefits of managing some areas so that the forces of nature hold sway.”
Harbison is quick to credit the New Hampshire Chapter for helping promote the Vermont bill—the chapters have been working together as members of the Northeast Wilderness Team, which includes New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. “A New Hampshire wilderness bill was introduced two weeks before the Vermont bill,” he explains. “New Hampshire’s congressional delegation is Republican, Vermont’s is Democratic—or at least votes that way—and we hope the bills go forward together as a bipartisan package, helping the chances that both will pass.”
Two top concerns in the Pine Tree State are protecting the Wild Allagash River Waterway and bolstering protections along the “100-Mile Wilderness” section of the Appalachian Trail. The 100-mile corridor south of Baxter State Park is the longest stretch of the trail uninterrupted by a paved road, but timbering and development are permitted within a few hundred feet in many places.
The Club’s Maine Woods campaign has built statewide support for beefing up this buffer zone and protecting a wilderness core on both sides of the trail. The Club’s leadership has resulted in nearly 100,000 acres of protection over the past five years, with another 60,000 acres now in negotiations. Maine Governor John Baldacci (D) last year publicly commended the Club for its work to protect the 100-Mile Wilderness.
In 2004, chapter members in the northern part of the state formed the Wilderness Project, to empower rural northern Mainers to protect the wilderness in their back yard. No sooner had they organized than in January 2005, Seattle-based Plum Creek Corporation released a plan for the largest development ever proposed in the state. Slated for the Moosehead Lake area, renowned for its scenery, outdoor recreation, and sporting camps, the development would build more than 1,000 second homes, three RV parks, and two luxury resorts on the shores of the still-rustic lake.
Wilderness Project leader Darci Schofield has organized opposition to the proposal, encouraging locals to speak out and putting together workshops to train them in effective public speaking. “All of our workshop participants have given powerhouse comments at public meetings so far,” Schofield says. “At the first meeting, our people arrived early and signed up to speak first, which really helped set the tone.”
Fellow volunteers Arlene LeRoy and Jayne Lellow have joined Schofield in leading tours of the Moosehead Lake area, and chapter activist Bob Guethlen helped establish the Moosehead Region Futures Committee to promote citizen solutions for the area.
“This will be a lengthy process, with many hearings and opportunities for public comments along the way,” says Maine Woods campaign director Karen Woodsum. “That’s why the Wilderness Project will continue to be so crucial—it exemplifies the importance of rural outreach and organizing people who live in remote areas. This is something the Sierra Club is very good at.”
Wild Dakota Grasslands
The Cheyenne River Valley Grasslands Wilderness Heritage Proposal would protect four units of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland—Indian Greek, Red Shirt, Cheyenne River, and First Black Canyon—chosen for their ecological significance, wilderness character, and geological and archeological resources. “This would be the country’s first grasslands wilderness,” says South Dakota Sierra Club organizer Heather Morijah. “It’s very different from other designated wilderness out there.”
The areas were designated roadless in 1979 under the Forest Service’s RARE II roadless area inventory. “But this protection could be wiped out at any time with the stroke of a forester’s pen,” says Black Hills Group activist Sam Clauson. “They’re getting increased use by off-road vehicles, and we’re concerned the Forest Service may swap lands with adjacent landowners, which has happened elsewhere.”
In 2002, two of the areas were recommended for wilderness by Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables. But the 2004 defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) by John Thune (R) caused the process to stall. The Club is now working to convince ranchers, legislators, and county commissioners in the three affected counties to support wilderness and oppose a new coal-hauling rail line proposed for the area.
“We meet with people one-on-one or in small groups and explain that grazing can continue on federal wilderness—it can actually help ranchers keep their grazing permits,” Clauson says. “We’ve convinced some staunch Republican ranchers that wilderness is a good idea. The majority of western South Dakotans aren’t ranchers, but the state Stockgrowers Association is opposed, and non-ranchers don’t speak out.”
Club volunteers are leading field trips to the area to show people—including legislators—what’s at stake. “We’re making inroads with local governments and county commissioners,” Clauson says, “and more and more hunters are on board. I’m a hunter myself, so I understand their concerns.”
These efforts have generated supportive press and letters-to-the-editor in recent months. “If we can get people see the economic benefits of wilderness I think we’ll get this passed,” Clauson says. “I’ve been involved with this since we started the Black Hills Group in 1972—it’s been my life’s work.”
Photo credits: Vermont (Don Dickson), Maine (Jerry Monkman), South Dakota (Heather Morijah)
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