It's enough to make one cry. All around, in every part of our beautiful state, ecological destruction and deterioration abound. From the scandalous abomination of Jay Peak and the leaching landfill in Coventry down to the vast hole in the middle of Burlington, the popped boil of another too-good-to-be-true real estate deal. From the cyanobacteria lapping the shores of Lake Champlain to the fouling of streams, rivers and lakes by a rogues' gallery of municipal offenders — St. Albans, Burlington, Vergennes, Montpelier, Rutland, St. Johnsbury. From the scalped ridge lines in Lowell and Sheffield to the shaved highlands of Readsboro and Searsburg, mountaintops sacrificed like vestal virgins to the false God of Renewable Energy (G.O.R.E).
Notably, tragically, all this has occurred since the passage of Act 250 and the raft of environmental laws enacted by the 1970 Vermont Legislature in what constituted a crescendo of an environmental consciousness that began in the early 1960s but peaked in the mid-1970s. Since then, it has been almost all decline: ecosystem after ecosystem, hillside after hillside, and forest after forest have all fallen before the bulldozer's blade, the steam shovel's bucket and the chainsaw's teeth. And with each legislative "reform," Act 250 shrinks and shrinks. Soon, like the Cheshire Cat, all that will be left of this once-landmark law will be an ear-to-ear smile, mimicking the assurances of politicians that all is well, all is well.
So, where does Act 250, and, by implication, Vermont's environment, stand in the year of its fiftieth birthday? And here is where the wise words of the late English author Terry Pratchett help: "If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are."
Act 250 is suspended in a time warp, hanging between two horns of ironic contrasts: the "then" — its creation — and the "now" — its slow marginalization, a polarity that casts a harsh light on those to whom this law has been entrusted. Us!
Then, Vermont had a governor, a Republican, who reminded Vermonters that we "are indeed an inescapable part of an intricate system of life upon which we are mutually dependent." Two generations later, Vermont had another governor, a Democrat, who told people in Grafton that "birds, bats, and bears are expendable" in order "to keep the planet safe," an environmentally illiterate comment by someone, in a further irony, endorsed by Vermont Conservation Voters.
Then, the House Democratic Minority Leader warned his colleagues, "If environmental legislation is in trouble, it can't be attributed to the Democrats." Now, with Democrats controlling the Legislature, the Vermont Senate is in a heedless rush — using the pandemic as cover — to fashion more exemptions to a law that already has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.
Then, the leader of one prominent environmental group called for "fundamental changes in the concepts of capitalism" and "attacked state industry for attempting to turn back efforts to protect the environment." Now, that person's successors mouth the long-time mantra of chambers of commerce and developers everywhere, embracing "balance" between environmental protection and economic growth despite the visible evidence that, at least since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, growth has been winning and the birds, bats and bears have been losing.
Then, a loose coalition of environmental leaders called for stringent protections to Vermont's high elevation terrain. Now, developer-friendly environmental groups spend more time protecting interstate highway exits so that out-of-state tourists have nice views instead of preserving our most sensitive ecological zones, Vermont's mountaintops and ridgelines, home for undivided forests, essential habitats and the life-sustaining head waters of our streams and rivers.
Perhaps the sorriest conduct rests with the envirocrats who pepper their legislative proposals with tortuous terminology — lawyers call them "weasel words" — that grants environmental ne'er-do-wells with more escape routes than in a rabbit warren. Case in point: forest fragmentation language. The subdivision of forests leads to incalculable ecological harm. Yet, the envirocrats provide developers with a "free-fire zone" of 1,999 combined feet of roads and driveways into the very forests we should not be fragmenting as long as their developments are well-planned "incursions," "thoughtful" in design and "minimize forest and natural habitat impacts." It is the great human delusion that we can design a better Earth.
Such sophistry reminds me of seeing my mother's open casket at her wake. I stood there, one of her best friends at my side. Looking at my mother's body, her friend remarked, "She looks so good." And I replied, "But, she's still dead."
And so goes Act 250. So goes Vermont. We are becoming morticians dressing up the corpse of our beautiful state.
Bruce S. Post, a former congressional aide, writes and lectures on Vermont environmental history.