By Julia Purdy
A new kind of nature book is hitting the stands. “The Mountain Manifesto: A Call to Protect the Green Mountains” is a detailed statement that aims to elevate the level of discourse around ridgeline development for industrial wind from the corporate bottom line of dollars and cents to a new, moral bottom line, charging Vermont with selling its soul — the mountain forests.
“The Mountain Manifesto” came about the old-school Vermont way, that began with a conversation around a kitchen table in January 2013.
The “Manifesto” is an inspired warning and call to action to halt the destruction of Vermont’s ridgelines; its main author is Bruce Post, who gathered up a confederation of likeminded Vermonters who have been on intimate terms with Vermont’s mountains. The “Manifesto” is lavishly illustrated with archival images and full-color photos. Vermonters for a Clean Environment has published the document online and a book is planned. The “Manifesto” is dedicated to Shirley Strong, the first woman president of the Green Mountain Club, elected in 1969.
Post became concerned for the future of the Green Mountains when the Lowell Mountain wind project was being built. He came to Vermont in 1965 as a freshman at Norwich University and is now retired from a lengthy career as assistant to well-known Vermont political figures like Vermont Congressman Richard Mallary, U.S. senators Robert Stafford and Jim Jeffords, and Governor Richard Snelling. After extended stays outside Vermont, he returned in 1990 and retired in 2008.
Post visited the Lowell site and thought, “This is crazy,” he told the Mountain Times. He began to delve into Vermont’s environmental history. His investigations brought him together with John Ewing, an attorney who came to Vermont in the 1950s, served on the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and became a founding member of the state forum on sprawl, for which he was awarded the Arthur Gibb Award for Individual Leadership in 2012.
Post and Ewing knew something needed to be done to protect the mountains … but what?
The idea waxed and waned. “The debate was too one-sided,” Post said. “We couldn’t get traction.” Then Roger Albee, former Vermont agriculture secretary, suggested creating a formal document, and Post came up with the idea of a manifesto.
Charles W. Johnson, retired state naturalist with the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation, helped in the design of the document and contributed text. Johnson, author of “The Nature of Vermont,” told the Mountain Times he got involved with wind turbines “years ago.” At that time there were proposals to put turbines on the peaks on Vermont state lands, but “there had been no study around turbines.” Since his job was to conserve and protect state lands, he became concerned and wrote op-ed pieces that appeared in the Times-Argus and VTDigger. Since retiring in 2000, he has joined the movement opposed to Vermont’s industrial wind program.
Other contributors to the “Manifesto” include Steve Wright, former Vermont Fish & Wildlife commissioner; and Justin Lindholm, outgoing Fish & Wildlife board member, who describes his role as “woods person,” surveying before-and-after conditions in the field for Vermonters for a Clean Environment; Sue Morse of Richmond, educator, nature photographer and expert tracker; and botanist Steve Young, who founded the Center for Northern Studies in 1971.
“John and I felt Vermonters needed to understand the immense damage wind turbine projects do to the mountains. They do not know about the long-term ecological effects on habitat, wildlife, forests, and watersheds,” Post said. The preamble reminds people that with heavy equipment “humankind can with ease and within a few months – milliseconds on the geological clock – destroy what took millennia to create.”
But heavy equipment is not the only threat to ecosystems. The real threats are shortsightedness and failure to involve the public in a meaningful way, the authors charge. “Vermont has made too easy a peace with both large-scale development and the destruction it often entails,” Post writes in the manifesto. While Vermont prides itself on conscientious environmental stewardship, this promotional branding is “an illusion,” Post writes.
The threat to Vermont’s mountains has occurred in three “waves,” outlined in the document.
Three waves of threats
The first wave, the early deforestation of Vermont, is known to every schoolchild. Most people have heard of the sheep boom; but a case can be made that the initial deforestation was due to potash. In high demand by England’s wool industry, potash was lucrative in the largely cashless economy, and burning logs down to ash was the way to produce it. A settler could clear his land and pay it off with the same stroke of the ax.
The second wave occurred in the 1960s, as the push to woo vacationers and second-home owners, begun in the 1920s, accelerated. Ski areas burgeoned, interstates sliced through pastures and ledge, and local highways were broadened and straightened to move more traffic faster.
We are now in the midst of the third wave of mountain destruction. It is only slightly tempered by Act 250, which was passed under Republican Governor Deane Davis in 1970, with alterations in 1998. At a time when Vermont is preparing to spend billions to achieve clean water, working to conserve plants, wildlife, and ancient sites, and pushing to achieve 90 percent independence from fossil fuels by 2050, the potential for destructive erosion caused by wind farms is just as serious as it was in the time of George Perkins Marsh, who recognized the problem of erosion resulting from the decimation of the forests and mountainsides, 150 years ago.
The state is now facing a dilemma, the “Manifesto” asserts, for which, in the case of industrial wind, the answer seems to be to sacrifice our fragile, irreplaceable environment order to save it, as has already happened in the Lowell Mountains. “All of the explosives used to build the ski areas are a fraction of the explosives used to establish wind turbine sites,” Lindholm explained to the Mountain Times.
Another section of the manifesto, written by Charles W. Johnson, offers a brief geological and biological history of the Green Mountains from mountain-building to glaciation to the gradual clothing of the landscape with vegetation and wildlife habitats. Johnson calls the Greens “some of the largest, untouched ‘virgin’ lands in the state.”
The presumption that certain apparently unproductive lands are “wasted” until “improved” for profit is an old one. The notion created the justification for European adventurers to plunder the New World. When English settlers encountered what looked to them like unused and unoccupied fields, coastlines and forests, this imperialist doctrine gave them the “right” to occupy these places for themselves, driving the native occupants out.
Certainly, a glance at a map showing the 18th century Wentworth grants proves that the lowlands were spoken for much sooner than the inhospitable ridges. Yet if human occupation is one yardstick, it can be said that there is no tract of land in Vermont that has not been surveyed, if not settled.
Value is always relative, but few would dispute that “beyond price” describes something that is rare, unique, or irreplaceable.
In the southern half of the Green Mountain National Forest is a swath of forest that is littered with the remnants of a major prehistoric flake tool industry. A chip of quartzite appears valueless—perhaps knocked off a boulder by frost or machinery—until one learns it is the product of a human mind and skill, high in the mountains, thousands of years ago.
Even though we are surrounded by everyday landscapes of outstanding beauty year round, “You cannot take them for granted,” Post said. Post worries that Vermont could end up “looking like West Virginia, which has been ruined by strip mines.”
In 2002 the University of Vermont conducted The Vermont Wilderness Poll of randomly selected Vermont voters, asking about the use of Vermont’s public lands. The overwhelming majority supported wilderness expansion, fewer roads, protection of “wildlife, watersheds and natural processes,” and tourism/recreation, while “traditional development activities such as logging, grazing or mining” ranked very low. High numbers of respondents said they spent time in recreation in the mountains and forests.
“People always want to know wilderness is there, it’s a kind of spiritual security,” Johnson said. But the “Manifesto” makes the further point that our mountains must be held inviolate, not for tourism or recreation alone, but because of what’s there.
“Too long we’ve looked at mountains as piles of resources,” Johnson said. “We need to look at them in their totality, just not for our economy and way of life, and not with blinders on. The mountains have their own value apart from what we need from them. The mountains themselves get ignored in our discussions about site placement … One of the words that we’re missing in all the discussion is the word ‘love.’ How do you factor in that love? To me, it has to be figured in somehow.”
“I got involved in the Lowell project which is almost in my backyard,” Steve Wright told the Mountain Times. Wright lives in Craftsbury. “I have an emotional and professional relationship with the Lowell Mountains, where I had spent a lot of time hunting and fishing and as an outdoor teaching lab for my students at Johnson College. It was as if someone walked in and said they were going to burn down my house.”
Wright has a professional background as a fisheries biologist; he served as Vermont Fish &Wildlife commissioner under Governor Kunin, plus seven years on the state environmental board.
In the summer of 2010, he said, 1,300 pages of GMP’s Act 248 application for the Lowell wind project landed on the desk of the Craftsbury town clerk. “I took a quick look at it and was horrified.”
Lowell is the 12th largest habitat block in the state, with 12,000 acres that would be impacted. He saw that the project would significantly affect the water resources of five Northeast Kingdom towns: Craftsbury, Albany, Irasburg, Westfield and Lowell.
Wright became an activist and president of the nonprofit Ridgeprotectors, which formed in 2002 against the Sheffield wind project. He assisted editorially on “The Mountain Manifesto.”
The issues were aesthetic and water-related, Wright said. The Wild Branch drains into the Lamoille River and ultimately Lake Champlain. The Green Mountains and the Lowell Chain are 350 million years old; the various natural frameworks such as water, wildlife and air quality have been evolving for all that time, he explained.
Even though the fundamental problem is the “basic issue of reordering and altering such structures as our mountains,” and the Green Mountains have long been a state theme, in the eyes of Act 248 the mountains have simply been resources for the production of electricity, Wright said.
Although he has been called a “climate denier,” Wright said he is not one. His concern is, rather, the impairment of the emotional and spiritual values of these mountains, which, he said, was well understood when the original Act 250 was signed.
The Lowell Project was completed in 2012. Meanwhile, the Ridgeprotectors continue to share the lessons learned from the Lowell experience. “The Mountain Manifesto” can be read at mountainmanifesto.org.
Photo courtesy of Vermonters for a Clean Environment
A service road is carved into Lowell Mountain making deep cuts in the rock and clearing vast swaths of forest.