MONTPELIER -- When the Air Force released a revised environmental study of six locations around the country it was considering as bases for the next generation F-35 fighter plane, it received 934 written comments from the public.
Of those, 913 were from Vermont. Eighty percent were supportive.
"It is kind of interesting to see that in this particular case that the vast, vast majority of the comments have come from one community," said Kathy White, a civilian spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Air Combat Command.
The F-35 debate is just the latest example of Vermont’s activist nature. Often, the passion comes not from regular protesters, but from ordinary folks with little history of overt civic engagement who are willing to take a public stand.
"There is a real spirit of subversion in Vermont," said Katherine Kirby, a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester and an F-35 opponent, who helped found the group Save our Skies and tapped into that sense of independence to fuel her efforts. "I think that’s really healthy because it allows the situation to be one where people are ... not just believing what they are told. They are thinking, and they are thinking critically."
Vermont’s history of civic activism and autonomy goes back decades -- even centuries. Some believe it stems from a combination of its small size and its history of participatory democracy embodied in the annual Town Meeting Day, where residents are expected and encouraged to debate all aspects of local governance.
Many proudly remember that Vermont -- before it became a state -- was the first to ban slavery in 1777. In an era of isolationism from the world state, Vermont declared war on Germany three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
For the last half century, many Vermont residents have been protesting nuclear power and a small but persistent following is anti-war.
Protests about Vermont Yankee remain common more than 40 years after the nuclear plant opened. Every Friday, war protesters spend an hour in front of the Montpelier post office.
Elsewhere in the state, plans to build industrial scale wind turbines on some Vermont mountaintops have spawned protests and even civil disobedience, with some opponents being arrested on Lowell Mountain.
In recent years, there have also been organized efforts against gas lines, power lines, genetically modified organisms, gravel pits and plans to build large farms.
A bitter public debate followed a ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court that prompted the Legislature to pass in 2000 the first-of-its-kind law that created civil unions for same-sex couples.
In the 1980s, dozens of Vermont towns debated nuclear disarmament and many passed nonbinding resolutions urging an end to nuclear war. In 2008, two towns passed nonbinding resolutions calling for the indictment of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for war crimes.
Last year, scores of towns passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision that expanded the rights of corporations to influence politics.
"They’ve drunk the water of civic engagement," said Richard Watts, the incoming director of the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont who wrote his doctoral dissertation on protests against plans to build a power line across the western part of the state.
"There’s this sense that you can make a difference, your activism can matter. Maybe that’s because of the scale. So we often know our elected leaders," Watts said of Vermont, the second-least populous state.
Annette Smith, of Danby, the founder of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, was drawn into public protest in the late 1990s opposing plans to build a natural gas line that would have fueled two power plants in western Vermont. During that process, she worked with people in other states who objected to the plan but didn’t feel there was anything they could do about it, unlike the Vermont activists.
"We have a much greater sense of place and a real commitment to community," Smith said. "That doesn’t exist in other places. It’s not just that we have it; it’s that other places don’t."
The engagement doesn’t just involve opposition to plans. Robert Dostis, a spokesman for Green Mountain Power, the utility that owns the Lowell Mountain wind project, said a key to the project eventually going forward was the number of people who spoke in favor of it.
"To me it’s part of the process, anything that’s big, whether it’s fighter jets or large wind turbines, there are going to be people who are not happy with the project. It’s part of the normal course of things," Dostis said. "The important thing, and it’s happened here, at least with our project in Lowell, is you make sure that it’s not just the folks who are oppose the project who are thinking about it."
In March 2010, Lowell voters overwhelmingly supported having the turbines constructed in their community.
In some cases, activism helps block a project. The proposal for the two generating plants that drew Smith into activism never led to anything more. But in other cases, the activists don’t get their way.
The state’s only nuclear power plant is still generating electricity, wars are still being fought and many of the development projects that became the target of activists ended up being built.
But input from the public can make projects, at least in the eyes of the opponents, less onerous. Watts said the company that built the power line he studied ended up putting sections of it underground, making it less objectionable.
"It gets back to that small ‘D’ Jeffersonian democracy," Watts said.
"People are used to having a voice and participating. If people feel they have been engaged, they feel better about the decision."