activism | Broadsides

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.

On Schwan’s & the Irradiation of Filth.

Okay, the weirdness of food safety activism is coming back to me. As in, realizing the kind of dreadful food that is being irradiated and then actually calling on people to avoid it because it’s being treated with radiation. Um, people, you shouldn’t be eating this dreck in the first place.

It reminds me of when we learned many years ago that the Hormel Corporation was thinking about irradiating SPAM. So what? was my first thought. How much worse can a little radiation make its dreadful contents? But a campaign is a campaign and, more importantly, more carcinogens in SPAM are still more carcinogens in SPAM. We won’t bother with the nutritional arguments here.

Well, it’s déjà vu all over again here. Because my new irradiation research has revealed that one of the biggest supporters of meat irradiation in the U.S. is Schwan’s, the home-delivery company whose yellow trucks should be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the suburbs.

Let’s be clear: Schwan’s food equals dreck. Period. End of story.

So, in that case, it’s not surprising that Schwan’s would see a need for a little radiation-cover-up. Imagine, for example, where their beef comes from? Hint: The largest and most industrial (read: cheap and filthy) sources. And then imagine the factories where tens of thousands of pounds of this fecal matter-riddled beef gets processed into the pre-formed patties and other products that should very loosely be considered “meat” in the first place.

It’s a recipe for disaster (pun intended).

But for corporations like Schwan’s, the solution to their dirty food problems isn’t to clean it up. Hardly. Instead, they reach for one toxic-quick-fix after another that only makes the underlying problem (dirty food) worse.

They try more antibiotics. They try chemical rinses. And now, they’re trying irradiation. Worse, they’re employing all these gimmicks on the same hamburger patties. Hmm, I wonder what irradiated antibiotics and chemical rinses taste like? More importantly, I wonder what they do to your health? No one knows, because the Food & Drug Administration has never bothered to ask or study or, apparently, care.

But let’s get back to the “radiation-cover-up” theme. It’s the marketing Achilles heel of the technology. Corporations employing irradiation are doing so because they know they’ve got a filthy product. In the case of meat, the filth is fecal matter. But they are counting on their consumers to be so uninterested in the contents of what they eat that they won’t care that irradiated fecal matter is still…well…fecal matter. Yum.

While avoiding Schwan’s foods should be one of the easiest things to do, avoiding the precedent of Schwan’s use of irradiation is a different matter. By contracting with irradiation corporations, Schwan’s is keeping the technology alive, endorsing the further industrialization of the food supply, and stymieing critical efforts to move the food supply in a safer and saner direction.

Stay tuned.

The State of Things

Different around here, huh? New look and all. And content! Well, I guess I shouldn’t push it.

Here’s the deal: I’m working on another site right now. I’ll give you the url when it’s ready. But it involves a semi-revival of my previous life: Food & Water. Yeah, the organization.

My return was inspired – if going backwards in your life can be an “inspiring” move – by some serendipity.

Last April marked the 15-year-anniversary of the death of my mentor, Dr. Wally Burnstein. His death rocked my world. For nearly ten years, Wally and I created and ran a kick-ass activist organization – Food & Water – that nearly-single-handedly stopped food irradiation and put the fear of boycotts in the hearts and minds of many corporate food honchos. Better yet, we had a blast doing it.

But cancer claimed Wally in 1996. And with him – for me and many others – went the joy of activism. And activism without joy cannot succeed. It can only be avoided.

Oh sure, I’ve had my fun (thanks, Boots), but it’s been far from organized and consistent. Worse, it hasn’t paid. And there is nothing wrong with a good activist job as long as the activist with the job knows that the top priority is to succeed to the extent that your job is no longer necessary. Hint: You are not an institution. And if thoughts of your 501(k) or a dinner-party invitation trump your desire to stick your metaphorical finger in your opponent’s eye…well….get another job. Or cause.

Wally and I thought we had organized ourselves out of existence shortly before his death. We had successfully defeated fruit and vegetable irradiation, chicken irradiation and meat irradiation, leaving many corporate food giants like Perdue, Hormel and Kentucky Fried Chicken humbled by their encounters with us.

Done, we thought. Let’s move on.

I did what Wally always wanted to: I moved to the great woods of the Northeast and pursued the joys of homesteading. A successful activist life, Wally counseled, must also be rooted in the hopes and possibilities beyond what you are fighting against.

If unhealthy food is what you’re against, demonstrate a path to healthy food. And live it. And be it. And, for crying out loud, find joy in it. Otherwise, shut up about it.

I apparently found too much joy in it of late – the homesteading part, that is. Because it dwarfed my activism. Which leads me to: now.

A week or so ago I got an inquiry from a European journalist working on an article about food irradiation. The article was obviously precipitated by the E.coli crisis that has gripped the region. It happens fairly frequently: E.coli outbreak = calls for irradiation = calls for a comment about why I would oppose a technology that could save death, pain, and destruction.

But this time it was different. Because this time it was the “worst” case of E.coli contamination ever. And it is, indeed, terrible. Thousands of people have become seriously ill from the novel germ with the not-so-novel prefix: E.coli.

And then another call came. And then a few emails. And then a letter in the mail (imagine that?), all wondering the same thing: Where’s Food & Water on this?

The answer: We’re here. And we’re ready.

But, be warned, I have a keen sense for joy. I’m not getting in the ring with you nuclear and industrial food fools without a very true commitment to laugh my ass off while I kick yours.

It’s not personal. It’s just what I believe in.

Game: On.

Join me, friends.

Catch-Up Blogging

I’m back. Sort of.

Because I spent a lot of time trying to relax and now I feel like I need some more time trying to fend off all the nonsense that made me not relax. (Note to ex-therapist: I know, I know, no one or nothing can “make me” do anything, but…whatever.)

Goddamn vacations. But I guess someone has to do it.

Pick me! Pick me!

Thanks, Dad, for a great retreat.

Politics, American Style: So, having been privileged enough to have the New York Times within a short walk’s distance every morning last week, I can report that the political status of our nation is… well…fucked.

And, as usual, I’ll keep my sharpened pen pointed at the good liberals – who certainly should know better.

The liberals, of course, have been focused on their kindergarten-like fixation on all-things-Sarah-Palin while continuing to ignore the rug that that their electoral-season hero, Obama, has been pulling out from under them.

If you don’t believe me, just pick up one of the last several columns by the liberal darling Maureen Dowd of the Times. Here, I’ll summarize them for you: Palin is an idiot and I am a clever genius for repeatedly pointing it out. Okay, okay, we get it: Palin is a dimwit. Not to mention an easy target.

But how about a little focus on the issues of the day – especially those that Obama and his Democratic accomplices in Congress are fumbling and/or ignoring daily? You know, things like the war, health care and economic justice (read: where’s the economic relief for those who truly need it?).

Oh, but it’s nice to see that Goldman Sachs is about to post record profits, isn’t it?

Making daily fun of Sarah Palin is a no-brainer. Been there. Done that.

What needs to be done now is to put a spotlight on the Democratic Party’s back-pedaling on nearly every major issue of the day. For years, these same Democrats fed the populace lines about “not having the White House,” or “not having both houses of Congress,” or “not having a filibuster-proof majority.” Well, those excuses are long gone. So what are they waiting for? Courage? A belief in their own electoral-season rhetoric?

Forget Sarah Palin. She lost. You won. Now give us some results.

Having said that, I will now break the rule. Deal with it.

I actually like it when the right-wingers start pouncing on Sarah Palin. Mostly because I love a good catfight. Meeeeeee-oooooooow.

The right-wing diva Peggy Noonan recently penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she poked Sarah Palin for being an intellectual lightweight. Noonan insinuated that Palin should just disappear so as to protect the image of the Republican Party.

Oh yeah, the party of Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle must protect its deep intellectual image…

Give me a break.

Speaking of liberals (well, a while ago), Vermont’s Secretary of State, Deb Markowitz, is touting her office’s plans to give each member of the Vermont National Guard who is about to be deployed to Afghanistan for Obama’s War a 100-minute Verizon phone card so they can more easily phone home.

Fine, make it easier to phone home. But what about the bigger picture here? You know, like the unnecessary nature of the war?

Markowitz – a Democrat – is ginning up her soldier-phone-home effort as an early public relations move in her bid to become the Democratic candidate to unseat Governor Jim Douglas. See, she supports the troops.

But wouldn’t it be better for Democrats like Markowitz to be speaking out against the deployment orders and the wars rather than slipping those sent to fight a phone-home card?

Oh Democrats, you never cease to infuriate me.

ATV comments: Last week, the Burlington Free Press reported that the comments submitted to the Agency of Natural Resources about its proposed rule to allow ATVs on state land were running between 3 and 4-to-1 against the proposal.

Well, what do you know, I was right: ATVers can’t write. But they sure can get in their monster trucks and drive, drive, drive to a public hearing. Perhaps if they put a motor on those pencils…

Bravo to Broadsides readers who certainly contributed significantly to the more than 1000 comments submitted the ANR. Now let’s see if the agency does the right thing. Don’t hold your breath.

Personally, I’m hoping for a good old-fashioned Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit on the matter. Those folks get things done.

Reading: Paul Auster’s “Man in the Dark,” a slim novella that is as engaging and as hard to put down as any of Auster’s other masterful works. And this one’s got a Vermont connection, too, as its protagonist – August Brill — is a retired literature critic who moves to the Green Mountain State to be with his daughter.

Brill, his daughter and his granddaughter share a Vermont home and a common affliction: broken hearts as “the weird world rolls on.”

Brill also finds the nights challenging, often waking to an over-active mind and left with the challenge of directing his mind’s conversations away from the sad thoughts about his life’s losses and toward the more soothing make believe.

The result is a wonderful tale of a certain Owen Brick, a man who lives in the competing – and colliding – worlds in which Brill creates. And the only way Brick can put an end to it is if he find and kill Brill himself. Unless, of course, Brill kills off Brick first. Storytellers do get bored with their creations, you know.

Auster is a superb writer and this little novel matches the prowess he’s displayed in my particular favorites of his, “The New York Trilogy,” “The Music of Chance,” and “Leviathan.”

Read it.

Last week a young man with a cheap sailboat took my father, my daughter and me out for a sailing lesson on Lake Champlain. It wasn’t really a lesson though. We were mostly too mesmerized by his sea ballet to focus on or retain much of what he was teaching. He called out the terms and performed the actions – tacking, watching for “luffing,” monitoring the jib, and beating – as we sailed back and forth on a mostly calm lake. It was a fine show. And a wonderful afternoon.

Congrats to Greenpeace for its creative action against President Obama over his willy-nilly approach to global warming solutions.

More of that please.

Thanks for playing. Now get back to work.

Activist Malpractice

All the organizations that claim to contest the present order themselves have all the puppetry of the form, morals and language of miniature States about them. None of the old lies about “doing politics differently” have ever contributed to anything but the indefinite extension of Statist pseudopodia.

— From “The Invisible Committee”

Beware of the professional activist, my friends. For they will lead you to policy slaughter and barely bother to conceal their complicity. Winning doesn’t matter to them. Change doesn’t either. Because the paycheck (plus benefits!) is what makes their slumbering efforts feel good.

Their “cause” is just another minor bump in their daily road: take out trash, pay bills, shop for groceries, feign outrage over [insert issue] and then go to sleep. Risk nothing. Quit when it gets hard or uncomfortable. Passion is sanded down to dull edge, whereby simply showing up rings their bell of attainment. Check it off.

When a doctor sleeps through surgery we call it malpractice. But when a professional activist sleeps through an action and misleads a movement we applaud their “effort.” Worse, we marvel at the failure of the professional: “Wow, that took courage.”

Sorry, but losing doesn’t take courage. It only requires not winning. And that’s easy.

The professional activist is hardwired to lose because losing keeps them in business. They celebrate the longevity of their involvement and the age of their organizations as if to spotlight their ineffectiveness: 10 years! 20 years! Send more money! Keep it going! Why? Because they haven’t accomplished anything yet. And it’s a good “job.”

Many years ago I coined the term “Activist Malpractice” in an essay of the same name. I wrote it to put a spotlight on professional activist organizations who would whip up the necessary fear and loathing toward dangers like toxic pesticides and rBGH and then settle for “solutions” like labeling the products that contained these toxins and/or agreeing to 20-year (and toothless) “phase-outs” of carcinogenic pesticides.

But wait, didn’t they say these things were killing animals and people and destroying the environment? Yes, they did. And just as quickly they turned the page and “celebrated” the mere introduction of legislation that they knew wouldn’t pass, ever be enforced and/or save one of the lives they told us these products were claiming.

But they kept their jobs. Got applauded from their largely-disengaged membership. Kept getting their phone calls returned from Capitol Hill. And sent out a new round of fundraising letters for the “next” not-so-great “effort.” We called it “doing bad and feeling good about it.”

This cycle of activist malpractice works most perfectly when it exists within the paradigm of our modern culture’s manufactured disengagement. You know, the one that says: You are helpless without an expert. Or, in the case of the professional class of activists, the one that says: Send us your money and we will solve the issue that we just scared you about. Who knew $25 could solve global warming!?

Because the professional activist needs its followers to be disengaged so that their charades can continue unabated.

Thoreau once counseled his fellow citizens in this manner: “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Today’s professional activists have changed that around a bit: “Let your checkbook help us lubricate the machine.”

And around and around we go, resulting in global warming activists cheering the changing of your light bulbs, health care activists cheering “the public option,” anti-war activists cheering “timetables,” and so on. The only true “winners” in any of these “causes” are the professional classes of activists, lobbyists, legislatures and regulators who’ve found that their own personal economic stimulus is based on your fears and lack of true engagement and expectation. Sucker.

Which brings me to the issue of the week (for me, at least) and a current case of activist malpractice: All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs). As readers will know from my two previous posts (here and here), the State of Vermont is now proposing that ATV riders have access to state lands, including our forests. It’s an absurd idea that is certainly opposed by a vast majority of Vermonters, not least of which are the hikers, birders and campers who enjoy the non-motorized nature of – well – nature. Imagine that.

But the professional organization that is claiming to lead the grassroots charge against the new ruling is the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), a group that claims to be the state’s “largest, most effective” environmental group. Oh yeah, it also claims to be the “oldest” such group, too (see above reference to age and effectiveness).

Like any good activist organization, VNRC does an admirable job of describing the dangers and problems of the issue at hand. ATVs, they report, are loud, smelly, destructive to the environment and dangerous to both the riders and those who are forced to encounter such machines in the so-called wild. As a result of these clear and present dangers of ATVs, VNRC issues an alert to its members: Danger, danger, they declare, the big-bad Republican Governor (Jim Douglas) and his Agency of Natural Resources are threatening our public lands! And I’m sure the fundraising solicitations went out with even greater haste.

But then comes the activism. And down go the expectations.

First, the VNRC’s Jamey Fidel told the Vermont Press Bureau on the day of the public hearings on the issue that his group was “not necessarily” opposed to the first new ATV trail on public lands that was being proposed. But what about all the death and destruction they whipped us up about? Nevermind. Because they’re now being professional. But keep sending those checks!

Worse, when the hearing finally happened, VNRC showed just how atrophied its grassroots muscles have become: Out of 250 people in the room, an estimated 15 were opposed to the new rule – and probably about two were associated with VNRC (both employees). Nice showing. But keep sending those checks!

Unfortunately, it gets worse. At the hearing, the VNRC’s Fidel got his chance to testify and he more than blandly reads and otherwise mumbled through a thoroughly passion-less recitation of the documented problems with ATVs and the hurried “process” by which the ANR has reached its decision (read: give me more time to raise money!).

Next up to testify: Fidel’s VNRC colleague, Jake Brown, the group’s communications director. And he begins with this: “I’ve owned an ATV for eight years and I ride it as much as I can on the weekends.” Sorry, but you can’t make this stuff up.

Memo to the VNRC staff: Have your “communications director” read your documentation on the environmental threats of ATV use, please.

And what’s that feeling I’m having: Oh, that’s the grassroots rug being pulled out from under me. Thanks, VNRC. Where do I send my check?

It’s called “activist malpractice.” Pure and simple. They raise money to protect the environment and they cower like scared sheep when the opportunity to truly protect it arises. They scare the public with the facts and then they fold like a cheap suit when it comes to the solutions. They scare the public enough to raise some cash about the dangers of ATV riding by day, and then mount an ATV by night and the weekends to frolic in the benefits of their “labor.” Shameless.

Ironically, I approached Fidel at the hearing to ask him a few questions. Specifically, I asked him if he thought Brown’s boasting of riding an ATV on weekends undercut his testimony about the environmental destruction of the so-called sport. His reply: “Not at all.” Of course not – just keep sending the checks!

But Fidel wouldn’t allow me to ask any more questions because he was “busy.”

“Call me at my office and I’d be happy to talk with you about it,” he told me.

“Tomorrow?” I inquired.

“No, I’m going on vacation tomorrow. Call me the week after next when I get back.”

The public comment period for the new ATV rule ends on June 22nd. Don’t count on the VNRC to be generating oppositional comments because its point-person on the issue is on vacation. But keep sending those checks!

Activist malpractice, indeed.

Testifying with a Chainsaw

Well, someone had to do it. And, of course, we did. We being: Boots, Bel and I.

I’m speaking about the public hearing held on Monday night about the Douglas Administration’s out-of-nowhere plan to allow all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) access to public lands. And while Douglas’ cronies at the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) tried to make the whole thing look legitimate, the whole process stinks more than an ATV exhaust pipe.

First, ANR officials admit almost proudly that they talked exclusively with one and only one group during its planning process for this new regulation to allow these machines to “rip it up” on our state lands: VASA, the ATV association in Vermont. And then they sprung the new rule on the citizens of the state just a couple of weeks ago, planned a hastily-prepared “public hearing,” and gave the public all of ten days to comment on it.

Can you say: Political games? I knew you could. And Governor Jim Douglas plays them like nobody else plays them. In case you don’t have an imagination, let me spell it out for you: Douglas got his political ass kicked during the last legislative session, having two of his vetoes overridden (gay marriage and the budget) and he’s looking like little more than political road-kill of late. So what’s a right-winger to do in such a circumstance? Well, throw a political bone to the ATV crowd, of course.

And so he did, and the VASA crowd lunged for it like a Michael Vick dog. Grrr….give us our rights to do what we want, when we want, where we want, however we want, and to whomever we want. Whatever.

Logic, of course, was an endangered species at Monday’s public hearings. The hundreds of well-organized VASA members who showed up were clearly looking for a fight. But little did they know that Vermont’s mainstream environmental community is about as lame as lame can be when it comes to taking a firm stand – especially when faced with a throng of hydrocarbon-breathing machines-equal-a-sport crowd.

Take, for example, the opening words of the “communications director” of the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), Jake Brown: “I’ve owned an ATV for eight years and I love to ride it as much as I can on weekends.” Huh? Remember, VNRC is the group that has been pegged by the fawning (read: lazy) Vermont media as “the opposition” to the proposed new ATV riding rule.

And so it went, the ATVers were all ready to rumble but their opponents were mostly looking like deer caught in the headlights and far too meek to mutter even the most benign opposition. Take, for example, the VNRC folks (Brown and his colleague, Jamey Fidel) who droned on about “process,” “fairness,” and Brown’s out-of-the-closet proclamations that he was “one of them.” Good luck with that.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to tip my hat to those who showed up and didn’t melt from the heat of being surrounded by two hundred angry men: Mollie Matteson of the Center for Biological Diversity, Anthony Iarrapino of the Conservation Law Foundation, Les Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse and a few private individuals that, unfortunately, I failed to hear their names or affiliations.

This hearing was absurd. And, frankly, we knew it was going to be absurd given the quickened pace of the process and the all-too-predictable meekness of the eco-crowd. That’s why we planned something equally as absurd for our testimony.

Yep, as the headline would suggest: We brought a chainsaw. Partly because we represent Horse Loggers for Peace (and the executive committee – oops, I mean: the entire group – okay, okay, I mean: both of us – decided to add “and Quiet” to our name for the evening) and partly because we knew how the pro-ATV crowd would be testifying. As in: “It’s public land, we pay taxes, and we want to play with our machines on the public’s land.”

Fine. Let’s play.

The plan was simple enough: Boots was going to testify about the health affects of ATVs – ever seen a room full of ATVers? – and when he got to his concluding statement about noise and air pollution I was going to fire up my chainsaw for a little demonstration. But we’d be in tune with the ATVers’ argument: Being on public land and playing with our own toys and all. We wanted to be as absurd as the proposal at hand.

But, frankly, when I surveyed the room and began hearing the other testimony I thought it would be best to use my time speaking out rather than using my time to fire up a chainsaw and simply getting arrested. But then my daughter, Bel, put this note on top of the papers I was carting around: “I really think that you should do the chainsaw.”

Geez, nothing like pressure from an eleven-year old to not wimp out.

And when they called our names to get in line to ready ourselves for our testimony, my mind was all but made up to use the chainsaw when Bel accompanied us to the podium (the plan was for her to stay in the back and have previously assigned friends be ready to take her home if I was arrested). But there she was, at our side, and giving me the look that said: Don’t be a wimp.

And so it went: Boots got to his final line in his testimony about noise and smell and I yanked the chainsaw out of my bag – without the chain for obvious safety reasons – and fired it up.

I watched the cop across the room, waiting for him to get up and come my way. He didn’t move. I watched the ANR official running the meeting, thinking he’d jump to his feet and demand an end to the noise and smell. He didn’t budge. And I watched the crowd, waiting for them to stop me, but they didn’t move. And so I did what these folks wanted: I made noise. I made smells. And we had a blast.

“What?” I declared after turning it off. “We’re on public land. I own the chainsaw. And I pay my taxes. What’s the problem?”

It was, as I explained, an absurd demonstration at an absurd hearing about an absurd new rule to allow people who own smelly and loud toys to “play” on public land.

Mission accomplished.

Thanks, Bel and Boots.

(Stay tuned for more)

Wild Matters: Ban ATVs on State Land

Big day. Well, if you care about all things wild in Vermont. Because the Agency of Natural Resources will be holding a public hearing tonight in Montpelier (Pavilion Auditorium, 7 p.m.-9 p.m.) to take testimony regarding its plans to allow all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) access to state-owned land.

Proponents of the letting these gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting and otherwise just noisy and obnoxious machines onto Vermont’s public lands are trying to soft-pedal these new rules, claiming that the newly proposed ATV trails will just be “short connectors” to already existing off-road-vehicle trails on private lands.

Yeah right. If you’ve bothered to follow snowmobile or ATV issues in Vermont, you know that when you give these renegades an inch they take a mile – literally.

Make no mistake, the ANR’s proposed rule to allow ATV access to public lands – no matter how short the original connector trails are – is a huge change in public policy that will almost certainly lead to more and more ATV access to state lands, including our publicly-owned forests. The organized ATV groups – like VASA – don’t hide the fact that they want to ride practically anywhere they can put it in four-wheel drive and rip it up.

The irony in the ANR’s proposed new rule is that ATV proponents are admitting that these new trails are necessary partly due to the current illegal riding by ATVers. Just read these words by VASA’s Danny Hale, as told to John Dillon of Vermont Public Radio:

Unfortunately there’s a fair amount of illegal use already taking place on state land. And what we’re trying to accomplish with a managed trail system is give people a chance to recreate where it’s legal, so that’s going to take a large number of the illegal riders right out of the picture.

Got that? In case you don’t, let me explain: The ATV riders are riding illegally on the public’s land now so, instead of enforcing the laws banning it, the state should change the laws to make it legal.

I’m guessing you’ve got to be around a lot of burned hydrocarbons to come up with that argument.

Unfortunately (and predictably), mainstream environmental groups like the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) aren’t showing a lot of teeth when it comes to fighting back against this proposed ATV land grab. The Vermont Press Bureau, for example, writes in this morning’s papers that, according to the VNRC’s Jamey Fidel, the group “isn’t necessarily opposed” to the first new connector trail being proposed in Island Pond.

Why – oh why – is it so hard from groups like VNRC to take a firm stand? But that’s another story for another time I suppose.

To the group’s credit, VNRC does document the very real and acknowledged problems with ATV riding: pollution, noise, flora and fauna damage, water run-off issues, interference with non-motorized forms of recreation and even rider safety. But with a laundry lists of problems like this, VNRC ought to be flying the “ban ATVs flag” as high as they can.

But, have no fear, the Horse Loggers for Peace (and quiet) will there – at tonight’s hearing that is. And you won’t have any trouble figuring out where we stand on this issue. It should be fun. Join us if you can.

Below are some great links to resources from groups who aren’t afraid to speak up and act out:

Leave it Wild
Bluewater Network
New Rules Project

Food & Water’s Memory Lane: The Ben & Jerry’s Campaign

Well, what do you say we continue the walk down Food & Water’s memory lane? As some of you will recall, after we secured our “popularity” in Vermont by highlighting Cabot’s use of rBGH, we turned our attention to Ben & Jerry’s refusal to go organic – a stand that they still hold to this day. Hmm, is there another “victory” lurking? I doubt it.

Food & Water held several meetings with Ben & Jerry (yes, the individuals), in 1996 and 1997 in an effort to convince them to single-handedly revolutionize Vermont agriculture by beginning the transition to organic dairy production. At the time, hundreds of Vermont farms supplied the popular corporation with the cream they required to meet their growing needs.

But Ben & Jerry refused to budge, claiming that they “couldn’t figure out a way to maximize their profits” via organic production. And so we gave them one more chance: Begin to move toward organic or Food & Water would publicize the fact that, despite the corporation’s rhetoric, it was sanctioning the use of toxic pesticides that threatened Vermont’s environment and the consumers of its ice cream.

Ben Cohen’s initial response was to offer me a job in their public relations department. I refused. Then he took us to a closet full of Ben & Jerry’s paraphernalia and told us to take whatever we wanted. I remember he was particularly proud of the “hippie ties” – yes neckties – that were recently made in his and the Grateful Dead’s honor. Take whatever you want, he declared.

“Thanks,” I remember replying, “but we’ve told you what we want: We want you to begin moving your farm suppliers toward organic dairy production.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Ben replied.

And so, the campaign was on. And so, too, was the liberal elite pushback. Big time. Whatever.

Our first shot across the Ben & Jerry’s bow was an ad that featured a cartoon family in a Vermont-like setting with a giant ice cream cloud lingering over them. The headline was blunt: “Ben & Jerry’s want to save the world. But who will save us from Ben & Jerry’s?”

The text below explained Ben & Jerry’s refusal to go organic and highlighted the thousands of pounds of carcinogenic Atrazine that was used on the Vermont dairy farms that supplied cream to the ice cream mavens.

Sure, we got our asses kicked in the media and within the nonprofit and funding community. I can remember one call I got from a significant funder and friend of Ben Cohen’s who began her conversation with, “You can’t do this.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Ben’s a nice guy.”

Ben’s affability was never a part of the campaign, I pointed out to her. But I don’t think she ever heard me because the phone soon went dead, as did her support for our campaigns that she had previously declared as “visionary.” I’ll let you decide who went blind, however.

Shortly after the launch of our Ben & Jerry’s campaign, I was invited to speak at an anti-nuke rally in Brattleboro. The person inviting me, Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network, wanted me to be a part of the rally but was nervous about the fact that Ben & Jerry’s had not only given money for the event but the two of them would also be speaking.

“I want you to speak, too,” Katz told me. “But you have to agree that you won’t mention Ben & Jerry’s.”

I told her I’d think about it. And after about ten minutes of thinking about it and laughing rather hysterically with my trusty colleague at the time, Michele Kirchner, I called Katz back: “It’s a deal.”

You see, we made a quick plan.  Sure, I’d appear at the rally – right before Ben & Jerry – and I wouldn’t “mention” the company.

And now, for the “rest of the story,” below is an excerpt from an article from the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine that featured the work of Food & Water. It was written by Sally West Johnson, who followed me around for days while researching her piece, including a trip to the Brattleboro anti-nuke rally. You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

We had fun. Because, as my activist mentor, Wally Burnstein, taught me: What’s the point of activism if you’re not having fun? Indeed. And people often thought we were devastated by the attacks we were so often under. Hardly. We were laughing. We believed in what we were doing and we were determined to have one hell of a good time in the process.

Here’s the Boston Globe’s description of our day at the Brattleboro rally:

Michael Colby’s time in the sun has arrived, and he’s ready for it. Striding up to the stage on this warm August afternoon, Colby, executive director of a political action group called Food & Water, has a small paper bag clutched in his left hand and mischief in his gray-blue eyes.

Colby is a scheduled speaker at an antinuclear gathering on the Brattleboro Common, a rally organized by the Citizens Awareness Network, based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, in Washington, D.C.

He is well known in the leftist community for his sharp tongue and his no-sacred-cows approach to politics. In an age when much of mainstream political activism has adopted the vocabulary of mediation and compromise, Colby is a pit bull — one with wit, but a pit bull nonetheless.

His bark and his bite have drawn him national attention, including appearances on three network evening news shows, CNN, ABC’s 20/20, and Phil Donahue’s talk show.

Lately, one of the targets of Colby’s bark has been Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream makers who are known for their liberal activism.

Colby’s Vermont-based group demanded that Ben & Jerry’s stop buying milk from farmers who feed their cows grain treated with the herbicide atrazine, a suspected carcinogen.

Ben&Jerry’s argues, as do a number of environmental watchdog groups, that atrazine in cattle feed does not show up in the milk supply and that organic corn, raised without weed-killing chemicals, is too expensive to find a market.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s are at the rally today to join in the antinuclear speechmaking, and the organizers have extracted a promise from Colby that he will not say anything about Ben, Jerry, or the atrazine controversy, but will stick to nuclear reactors and nuclear waste.

Colby takes the stage along with his assistant, Michele Kirchner. He opens the bag, extracts a pint of nicely softened Chubby Hubby, one of Ben & Jerry’s best-known flavors, pulls out a spoon, and begins to eat.

“Doing bad and feeling good about it,” Colby intones between bites of ice cream. This is a phrase that appears often in the Food & Water advertising campaign against the ice cream maker, and many of the 100 or so activists in the audience appear to know that. Others seem intrigued.

“Doing bad and feeling good about it,” Colby says again, pausing for another spoonful of Chubby Hubby. “Doing real bad, and feeling real good about it.”

With that, his microphone goes dead. The audience begins to buzz; people ignore the next speaker’s arrival, flocking to Colby and Kirchner as they descend the steps at the back of the stage.

Was Colby deliberately cut off, people want to know. Yes, he was. Well, why? Doesn’t he have aright speak his mind? Colby now has the platform he was looking for, albeit not an official one.

“Six hundred farmers are using a carcinogenic herbicide,” Colby tells the crowd gathered around him offstage, “and Ben &Jerry’s won’t stop buying the milk made by cows that
eat that corn.”

Debbie Katz, president of the Citizens Awareness Network, defends the decision to shut Colby down. “We said that going after Ben & Jerry’s was unacceptable, and he agreed three times not to do that,” she says. “His issue is real and should be brought up in a different forum — just not here.”

Others aren’t so sure “I don’t believe in censorship,” says Bill Addington, an antinuclear activist who has come from Texas to speak against the location of a low-level nuclear waste dump – a destination for Maine and Vermont nuclear waste — in the remote Texas town of Sierra Blanca. And Mardie Ratheau, of Brattleboro, calls the episode a “serious infringement” of Colby’s right to free speech.

It has been a moment of pure street theater: short, punchy, and effective, just the way Michael Colby likes it.