SteamMillFall

On ATVs: What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

SteamMillFallThe Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and a department within it, Fish & Wildlife, have recently proposed to allow riders of all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) access to trails that are on the state’s wildlife management areas, lands that have strict development restrictions and are supposed to be managed with wildness as the guide. The Agency has turned down similar requests in the past. But the ATV lobby keeps coming back, and it’s widely believed that they’re going to get the access they want this time.

In the great spirit of Senor Quixote, I rose to the occasion when ANR invited the public to provide commentary on its proposed rule. Today, I submitted the following comment to them:

I hike daily in a Walden section of the Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Management Area. It is a stunning testament to the possibilities in honoring and protecting our coveted wilderness. On a recent hike, I stopped to read your agency’s literature at the trailhead atop Rock Road. It was inspiring to read about the important work being done within these WMAs, and I was thrilled to see the “No ATVs” signs you have prominently posted.

I was also very pleased to see your tribute to Aldo Leopold and his land ethic, particularly your rightful declaration that his writings have “inspired the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.” You write and post this at the trailhead: “A land ethic expands the way we view the land by including aesthetics and ethical considerations in land use decisions.”

Yes! I would only add this from Thoreau: “The most alive is the wildest.”

Now stop and consider what you’re asking the public to comment on: A proposed rule to allow ATVs to drive onto and over these sacred places. Frankly, given your proclaimed adherence to Leopold’s land ethic, it’s a bit shocking that you’re even asking the question. Where, exactly, does a loud, exhaust-spewing, fast, and planet-threatening parade of ATVs fit into such a land ethic? It doesn’t, especially when “aesthetics and ethical considerations” are included.

Again, back to your trailhead welcome note, where you state a clear goal with your wildlife management areas: “They are managed for the purposes of conserving and improving habitat for Vermont’s native plants and animals and providing opportunities for the public to ‘renew contacts with wild things’ through regulated and ethical hunting, fishing, trapping, birdwatching, hiking, and other wildlife based activities.”

Again: Yes!

Once again, however, my elation with your sentiment becomes perplexed by the reality of your proposed rule. Allowing ATVs on any land is not a question about whether or not the land will be damaged. It will be. The debate is about how much damage the ATVs will do and then trying to manage that damage, from erosion, compaction, noise, road kills, etc. This is in direct contradiction to your management goal of “conserving and improving” this land because ATVs provide neither in their inherently destructive tendencies.

Similarly, the use of ATVs can do little by way of your stated goal of renewing contacts with wild things, unless, of course, you’re referring to the contact being made between the wild things and the grills and wheels of the ATVs. These vehicles, with their speed and noise, terrorize wildlife and those of us trying to partake naturally – on foot! – within these protected places.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture and in a time when taming, conquering and even obliterating our wild places is the norm. It is seen as progress in a most myopic sense, one that is at near-complete odds with forest ecology and a Leopoldian land ethic.

Instead of allowing ATVs to rip and ride on our protected wildlands, I’d like to see your agency advocate for a speed limit that is respectful of — and in rhythm with — nature’s pace. That would mean walking, not riding; and hiking, not throttling; running, not racing. We should advocate being in the wild with an ethic rooted in reverence and lightness, all within nature’s speed limits. We should be good guests of the wild places, by observing, listening, and adjusting ourselves to its speed rather than using it as a speed bump.

Your agency and its leaders have given great lip service to being concerned about global warming. But talk is cheap. What the public needs – especially from natural resource agencies – is meaningful action. Advocating for and/or enabling recreational burning of fossil fuels for pure entertainment is exactly what the ANR should NOT be doing.

If you believe as you say — a belief I share — that global warming is real and, therefore, real action is needed to combat it, that our natural resources need strong advocates, and that a land ethic should be fostered and promoted based on the beauty, joy and mysteries of our most natural places, then you should know just how antithetical combustion-engine recreation is to those objectives.

Let me remind you: You are the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish & Wildlife. Your constituents are the wild things and the wild places. You are their most powerful advocates in the state. Please take it seriously by making our natural resources and our fish and wildlife your utmost priority. You are not the Agency of Fossil Fuel Consumption or the Department of Motorized Recreation. Please act accordingly.

There is talk among proponents of this new rule that they are only asking for “short connector trails.” But size doesn’t matter, the precedent does. And those of us who want to see our wildlands remain wild fear that this will only be the first step toward asking for more and more ATV access in the future. ANR’s current – and clear – ban on ATVs within WMAs remains the best and most easily enforceable rule.

While these proposed connector trails may, indeed, be short, the future ramifications will be far and wide. The sound from the ATVs will be heard for great distances, a sound made louder by the recent trend in the recreational ATV world to modify the engines to increase power and noise. And it will give a nod of acceptance for an activity that should be discouraged in a time of climate change and an urgent need for a real reconnection with the wilderness.

This should be a no-brainer. Just ask yourselves this: What would Aldo Leopold do? And then do the obvious with a deep and satisfying nod to his true land ethic: Continue to ban ATVs from Vermont’s wildlands.

Keep ATVs Off Vermont Wildlands

The problem with being a middle-aged activist is that you start to realize you’re facing the same issues, time and time again. Nothing ever seems to go away, no matter how ridiculous the notion.

Take, for example, the renewed push by the motorized-leisure crowd – this time the all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) folks – to gain access to certain parts of Vermont’s wildlife management areas. They’re claiming that the state-managed land is in the way of them connecting their privately-owned trails. And to that, I say (again): Tough.

Just because a piece of land is in the way of your recreational pursuits doesn’t mean you can lay claim to it. And just because a bunch of people got together and decided that taking a motorized vehicle into the woods is a sport, doesn’t mean it deserves any special dispensations from the rest of us.

I happen to live on land that abuts a piece of the 12,000ish-acre Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Management Area in Walden. Our horse pasture runs right up against it, using the old stonewall as the same border-marker that it has been for decades. But our horses aren’t allowed to put a hoof on any of the state land, based on a claim that keeping the horses out helps prevent the spreading of invasive species that might migrate through the horse’s gut and manure.

It’s a nice theory. And it might even be real. But if the plan is really to keep animals from migrating in and out of the protected land while not being careful about where they lay one down, they’d better figure out a way to communicate that to the moose, bear, deer and whatnot that all seem to be disobeying the concept.

It’s just silly, keeping horses out. But it’s the rule. And we follow it.

Enter the ATVers, promising to ride like church ladies and hold fundraising rides for every child in pain, if only they can get some access to the protected lands in order to…..what?!?….drive noisily all over it. Yee-haa!

Sorry. Not supporting it. And Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources should do the same. This request was made many years ago, setting off all kinds of hearings and acrimony until, thankfully, the proposal was rejected. It was recognized as not compatible with the goals of a wildlife management area, and seen by many as a fairly transparent attempt to get their foot in the door – or wheels on the ground – and then keeping asking for more and more state-owned trails.

When they last proposed this, in 2009, they held a public hearing to take the people’s testimony on the matter. The ATV lobbyists had done their work, filling the room with a rather snarling bunch, looking and feeling a bit out of sorts in the bright lights of the government building. The room was stacked against reason.

We made a show of it, nonetheless. By “we,” I mean Boots Wardinski, Bel Colby and myself. We had decided to sneak a chainsaw into the hearing room (sans dangerous chain) and fire it up during our testimony. We knew exactly how the proponents would be testifying: It’s public land! We pay taxes! We should be able to do what we want on it!

Sounds good. And so why not fire up a chainsaw in a public building? It’s public! I pay taxes! I should be able to do what I want!

It really shouldn’t be that hard for people to understand that certain things don’t mix. I can’t ride my bicycle on the Interstate. I can’t take my car up Camel’s Hump. And, similarly, recreational uses of ATVs don’t belong in wildlife management areas.

There is a speed and rhythm in these protected areas that is very different from the snarl and speed of the careening four-wheelers. I hike daily onto the protected lands of Steam Mill Brook. I used to bike, too. But after one-too-many close encounters with large animals using the same trail, I decided that my bike was putting me out of the rhythm that existed there. It was too fast. And speed doesn’t live there, just the speed of wildlife, the wind and the seasons.

Now I only walk it, and it feels just right, not exceeding the speed of the wild.

And so, here I am again: Asking Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources to do the right thing by rejecting this renewed attempt by ATV riders to gain access to the state’s protected lands. They simply do not belong there.

[Action Alert: Click here for information about doing something about it.]

Voting with Ned.

I vote in a tiny rural town. And even though everyone knows everyone, we go through the official routines of voting: State your name on the way in and state your name on the way out to the town’s older women who take running the polls very, very seriously.

I’m usually voting alone, making the use of the curtain seem absurd. But routines are routines. Today, though, I was lucky enough to have – let’s call him Ned – come in and vote with me.

“State your name?” he was asked.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” he returned, pulling his well-soiled hat off and tossing it on the desk. His hair, more like gray tentacles, shot out in every direction. He was in all flannel, mood and all.

“That’s not your name,” she fired back, without a hint of a smile. Their families have “some history” up here. Which basically means they’ve been assholes to one another. No one’s innocent in small town relations.

“Ned Nordstrom. Independent.”

“All I need is your name,” she said, again with all the warmth of a cold fork.

With their awkwardness complete, Ned settled in behind his red, white and blue curtain, ballot in hand and with a tiny pencil made to look even smaller in his giant-fingered hand.

Ned moaned and mumbled, sometimes slowing it down enough to make it very understandable: “And..for…governor…….there…he…is.”

I was enjoying the show.

More moans from Ned. And then a fist slam against the cheap government-issued voting table.

“Having fun over there?” I asked.

“It’s like shitting sharp stones,” he said.

Vermont Politics: Alex MacLean Edition

The Vermont Insider’s Guide to Fucking Up with Impunity

By Alex MacLean*

Rule #1: Work for the governor.

Rule #2: When not working for the governor, work for a corporate project that the governor has made a top priority.

Rule #3: When you make a mess of your corporate work, get a job with a lobbying firm that is closest to the governor.

Rule #3.5: It also helps if said lobbying firm is a major donor to Vermont’s media/political elite, thus assuring that your corporate mess won’t get press.

Rule #4: Always keep your eye on returning to Rule #1.

*Alex MacLean, pictured in the center above, is the former campaign manager for — and political appointee of — Governor Peter Shumlin, before leaving him in January 2013 to work for the Jay Peak development initiatives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. After having made a mess of her corporate work, she recently accepted a “partnership” with the Shumlin-friendly lobbying firm, KSE. Dizzy yet? Should be.

Montpelier Farmers’ Market Threatens Vendor Speech

My friend, Boots Wardinski, got a reprimand and threat of expulsion from the Capital City Farmers’ Market (Montpelier, VT) last week after asking the board to address an apparent violation of its bylaws. Specifically, the market is supposed to have “at least” 60% of its vendors be classified as “agricultural producers.” Boots, a vendor of garlic, blueberries and perennial plants, did a survey of the existing vendors and found that the market was barely touching the 50% threshold for “agricultural producers.”

Frankly, the 60% threshold seems a bit low to me, but it provides an explanation of why so many vendors of crafts and dog-food biscuits are occupying spaces that should be for farmers. But, if you know anything about the back-biting history of farmers’ markets, you’ll know that once in, many leaders of such markets do their best to put a halt to competition by limiting vendors that may interfere with their commerce. That’s why the farmer vendors that usually occupy a majority of the decision-making positions will start letting spoon makers and pizza bakers in before they’ll let another farmer come and pinch their profits.

Boots took the information he collected to the board, asking them for an explanation for the apparent bylaws violation. Boots used the Google Groups listserve that was set up for just such market communication. The board responded swiftly with a letter to Boots that basically said sit down and shut up. Worse, they quickly adopted guidelines for how vendors should communicate with each other, guidelines that included a requirement that all communication should reflect the “greatness” of the market. If its nebulous-at-best communication guidelines weren’t followed, the board continued, warnings and then expulsions were the proscribed punishments.

That’s a long, long way from the groovy vibe markets like the Capital City Farmers’ Market tries to present to its customers.

If you know anything about Boots, you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s not turning the other cheek for another board smack down. Boots has reached out to the community to support his right to free speech as well as the ability to exercise that right AND remain a market vendor.

Below is the letter I sent to the Board of Directors of the Capital City Farmers’ Market in support of Boots. Stay tuned for developments.

June 20, 2014

To: Board of Directors, Capital City Farmers’ Market, Montpelier, VT
From: Michael Colby
Re: Boots Wardinski and market communication

I am writing to strongly oppose your recent correspondence and accompanying threats to Boots Wardinski regarding his inquiries about the market’s adherence to its bylaws. I found your words and actions to be both chilling and abhorrent.

But you already knew it was chilling toward his and others’ right to speech — that’s why you told him to edit himself into compliance or face expulsion. It’s also called censorship. And when it’s coupled with a threat it becomes abhorrent.

Your verbal reprimand to Boots is a disturbing mix of pomposity and paranoia. You demand, for example, that Boots comply with your nebulous-at-best rules of engagement within your Google Group listserve, complete with an insultingly condescending exhortation to always remember that the market is “great” and his communication should, apparently, always reflect that. Really? Is this a farmers’ market or a cheerleading camp?

But this market, like all the good — oops, make that: great – markets didn’t become great without one serious internal struggle or philosophical/procedural battle after another. The very genesis of the farmers’ market movement was steeped in a deep sense of – brace yourselves – discontent with the existing economic paradigm offered to farmers. While the public persona of the modern farmers’ market is that of one, big happy farm family, the truth is that it is and always has been a hell of a struggle to smoothly run what is essentially an organization for the deeply individual: the farmer.

And so the sparks have flown, as they always will.

As a former vendor at your market in the mid-1990s, I can remember board meetings when a discussion about the definition of “local” almost led to a fistfight. Just as I can remember the vehemence with which this board – your board – has reversed course and, as a result, created intense dissention over the market’s possible move to the Vermont College green.

It happens. Big deal. Because, as you say, the market today is still “great.”

Boots bringing up a completely germane point about the bylaws of your organization will not threaten the greatness of your market. Hardly. The real threat is in this board’s efforts to stifle the real and genuine concerns of its membership, all in some quixotic effort to codify speech and dictate a cheerleader-like code of conduct. Good luck with that.

Your not-so-veiled threats to Boots are only made worse by the board’s worry that the public might get a whiff of this membership/board dissention. But it was the board’s paranoia and heavy-handedness that led to this issue gaining the public’s attention. Attempts at censorship or a stifling of participation rarely go ignored. And so here you are: exposed.

This board should do the right thing and address Boots’ concerns about the bylaws – sooner rather than later. Moreover, it should retract its ill-begotten threat and vindictively written guidelines for communication within the organization.

Boots Wardinski enhances your market. He, more than almost anyone I know, embodies the spirit, struggle and commitment that are inherent in the farmers’ market movement. Instead of silencing him, try listening to him.

On Walden Politics

I’m signing the petition that is currently circulating in Walden, Vermont that calls for a reconsideration of the school’s budget vote that passed by a very narrow margin of 116-113 on Town Meeting Day.

Frankly, I am not all that upset with the budget itself – but that could be because after last year’s initially proposed 17% hike anything looks more reasonable in comparison. The school board seemed to be getting the message – after five votes – that the people of Walden are beyond the point of simply struggling over the ever-increasing tax burden.

But while the school board was telling us with words that they were “hearing” the voters, the Town Clerk, Lina Smith, and the School Board Chair, Judy Clifford, pushed forward a proposal to make it harder for the voters of Walden to be heard. Specifically, they proposed to increase the percentage of voters needed to call for a reconsideration vote from 5% of the electorate to 20%, a huge increase.

The “reconsideration vote” was the tool used last year by the Walden voters when successfully forcing the school board to cut their enormous budget increase.

At Town Meeting, however, they were met with stiff opposition from the floor and quickly offered a compromise seeking an increase to 10%. It worked (for them), as the 70-or-so voters who were still hanging around after four and half hours passed it.

“Take that!” was the clear message. But while celebrating this obvious attempt to make democracy a whole lot harder for the voters, they failed to realize that they were taking one, big, menacing swing at the hornet’s nest that be the Walden voters – especially when they’re feeling pushed around.

Before this vote, the cantankerous mood that had settled on the town during last year’s five acrimonious votes was mellowing. People on both sides were more than a bit fatigued by it all. Moreover, the school board said it was listening and the voters seemed willing to trust them based on a much, much lower increase in this year’s budget.

Like I said, then they took a swing at the hornet’s nest. So here we go again.

I’m signing the petition that seeks a reconsideration of the school budget vote as a protest of this collaboration between the town clerk and school board chair. And, next year, I look forward to working with voters to petition the school board to reinstate the 5% reconsideration threshold.

Oh Walden.

Walden, Vermont will be celebrating Town Meeting Day tomorrow by considering a proposal that would seriously undermine democratic participation: raising the percentage of voters needed to reconsider a vote from 5% to 20%. It’s clearly a kindergarten-like payback for the school budget fights last year, where upwards of 65% of the voters said “no, no, no” in a series of re-votes before the school board started to listen. Oh wait, are they saying “no”?

But now – after reducing the budget, as requested by 65% of the voters – the school board is both claiming that they are “listening” AND trying to make it harder for the citizens to speak in the future. Can you hear me now?

The 5% of registered voters needed for a recall vote to happen is a long, long Vermont tradition. It’s been in Walden’s charter for generations and generations. And it’s a good threshold. It takes a fair amount of work to get 5% of the voting population to put their names on a public petition to call for a reconsideration of a vote already approved by their fellow neighbors. In Walden, that meant getting nearly 40 signatures last year – in a town with no store, no post office and no high school. Like I said, it takes some effort.

This is clearly an effort fueled by the frustration of the school board. They proposed a budget increase of more than 15% and then sleepily tip-toed to a town meeting vote that squeaked by with only a few votes to spare amongst the mere 160-or-something votes out of our town’s total 600+ registered voters.

And then 5% of the voters asked for a reconsideration, resulting in votes of vast majorities (65% or so) saying no, no, no to the radical increases.

Finally, the school board decided to listen. And they chopped the budget to a level that was – by vote – congruent with the Walden population.

And then they told us how they “heard” us. And they told us how they were “listening.”

And then they put forward a change in their bylaws that would make it harder for these kinds of efforts to occur again. Here’s the board’s proposed question to the voters attending its next meeting at Walden’s Town Meeting:

“Shall the Walden School District increase the percentage of voters required on a petition for a reconsideration or rescission from 5% to 20%?”

If that’s not a big FU to the voters, I’m not sure what else is.

But, they’re listening, remember?

This whole effort is about trying to make it a lot harder to question their decisions and for the school board to be able to identify people who oppose them – a powerful tool in the world of small-town politics.

It’s sad, really.

Please, if you’re a Walden voter and you attend Town Meeting: Vote “No” on the roadblocks to democracy.

And to the Walden voters who won’t be attending Town Meeting, stay tuned for a re-vote.