Suzanna Jones: Gutting of Act 250 an assault on the environment, the democratic process

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Vermont's beauty, character and relatively unspoiled condition are cherished by those who are glad that our beloved state has not yet been turned into New Jersey. That it hasn't is at least partly thanks to Vermont's Act 250. This unique and widely respected environmental protection law was enacted in 1970, at a time when the state's mountains were under siege by developers, and when the idea of land ethics emerged. The law was not only meant to protect the environment, it was also designed to honor the democratic process by making citizen participation central to its structure.

Could this same law be passed today? The late UVM botanist, Hub Vogelman, expressed doubts about this toward the end of his life. When the law was first passed, "the lobbyists hadn't got their act together yet," he said. But now they have, and they are making a concerted effort to eviscerate Act 250.

To accomplish this, the Scott administration has teamed up with the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), a supposed environmental organization. VNRC's director, Brian Shupe, argues that Act 250 is "difficult and expensive for citizens to navigate in a meaningful manner."

To solve this alleged problem, VNRC proposes to create a Public Utility Commission-like process that would make it even more difficult and expensive for citizens. The VNRC proposal eliminates the public process at regional district commissions — described as the "heart and soul" of Act 250 in VNRC's own literature. Hearings before the district commissions make citizen participation possible because they are less formal and don't require hiring expensive lawyers in order to have a voice in local matters.

Without district commission hearings, participation would become virtually impossible for all but big developers and state agencies. VNRC seems to have forgotten that in the past it described the district commissions as an essential and critically important forum for citizen participation in decisions that will forever affect them and the land where they live.

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The House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee, which is considering changes to Act 250, seems to believe what VNRC and the Scott administration are selling: that the district commission process is too generous to the public and municipalities. In an effort to give lip service to the numerous complaints about eliminating the district commissions, they have proposed making appeals of district commission decisions "on the record" — meaning that appeals will be based only on evidence that was formally presented at the prior hearings. This would turn the district commission process into the equivalent of court.

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Another proposal is to abolish hearings before district commissions entirely, though this proposal was recently rejected by the House Natural Resources Committee.

Why would VNRC be working to undermine this cornerstone environmental law? Maybe it is because their board of directors includes developers. Maybe it is because some of their funders find the law cumbersome. Or maybe it is because concerns over climate change have reduced environmentalism to a single-minded focus on carbon emissions — resulting in too many environmental organizations rationalizing the destruction of Vermont's ecosystems so long as it is done "to save the planet." This is an utterly hollow and empty version of environmentalism, one that emerged at the cost of its soul. But it serves developers well — including those on VNRC's board.

Climate scientists and biologists are telling us that healthy ecosystems are our best defense against a rapidly warming biosphere. Biologist Robin Kimmerer put it this way: "Nature is trying to tell us what we can do but we aren't listening ... We have made a terrible mistake by dismissing other living beings — harvesting them as commodities as if they were just 'stuff'. We are afraid of the pain and humility that would come with that acknowledgment so we maintain the posture of human exceptionalism to avoid that pain. And we continue the assault without pause."

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In other words, the problem isn't just carbon. It is our way of life and our worldview that need transforming.

For this reason we should be strengthening Act 250, not crippling it. Unfortunately we are caught in a collective self-delusion which marks the decline of all civilizations. We comfort ourselves with our own imagined virtue while leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of those in power, who will do nothing meaningful to stop the ecocide.

In these times we need to make sacrifices, but those sacrifices should come from the bloated economy and those that profit from it, not the natural world. If we cannot stop the pathological embrace of development and economic growth because we love this place, then there really is no hope.

Suzanna Jones writes from Walden, Vt. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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