Club Works With Labor, Tribal Partners to Protect Vermont Forests
Last fall, the Vermont Sierra Club decided the time was right to launch an ambitions forest conservation campaign and build a broad-based movement within the state to support it.
On February 9, the chapter's Our Forests Our Future campaign was officially endorsed by the Vermont Workers' Center, which includes many affiliated labor unions including the 10,000-strong Vermont AFL-CIO. Below, a Workers' Center rally in Montpelier, the state capital.
"The Workers' Center is essentially the Vermont labor movement," says local Sierra Club organizer David Van Deusen, below. "It's by far the strongest grassroots group in the state, and now they've expressed interest in helping us train our volunteer organizers."
The Club has also enlisted the support of Abenaki tribal leaders in Vermont. "The Abenaki have sent representatives to many of our meetings, and they're very interested in playing a strong role in our efforts to conserve forest land in the Northeast Kingdom," says Van Deusen. "And it's not a one-way street. Just as the Abenaki have been supporting our campaign, the Vermont Sierra Club has been active in supporting them on their issues. It's a true partnership."
Our Forests Our Future is part of the national Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats campaign. "We're moving forward by reaching out to non-traditional allies," says chapter chair Zak Griefen. "This diversity gives us strength. We look forward to collaborating with both new and established allies to preserve and expand biological corridors throughout the state."
"Of course, we had to do this the Vermont way," Van Deusen quips. "Instead of creating new forest protections through federal acquisitions, we'd like Vermonters to build a mosaic of town-owned conservation forests. Locally-owned, Vermonter-owned, open to the public—this is our aim and intention."
Van Deusen began engaging the Workers' Center in September to find out what they'd like to see in a conservation forest plan. "The two things they stressed were getting support from the Abenaki tribal leadership, and finding ways to have the new conservation forests serve low-income Vermonters as well as the environment. This second request dovetailed nicely with what we were hearing from our own members."
The Club hosted a series of seven regional meetings, in which they ascertained that major concerns were the right of tribal members to hunt and fish in the town forests—a food security issue for the Abenaki—and the right of communities to harvest sustainable amounts of firewood for low-income and elderly residents. Below, Vermont chapter chair Zak Griefen, Nulhegan Abenaki Chief Don Stevens, and chapter conservation chair Don Dickson.
It was also suggested by an elderly farmer who attended one of the meetings that low-impact cooperative uses like "bucket-and-tap" maple sugaring be allowed, and the chapter has agreed to support responsible snowmobile use in addition to non-motorized recreation like hiking, camping, and horeback riding.
The chapter decided from the get-go to pursue a town-oriented strategy rather than protect land through federal acquisitions. "We felt we weren't going to have support in the Abenaki community if we went the federal route, and that was confirmed in our talks with them," Van Deusen says. "One of the reasons they're so excited about the campaign is that it's advocating local ownership."
The ultimate goal is to create a mosaic of town forests that will link Vermont's Green Mountains with upstate New York's Adirondacks to the west, New Hampshire's White Mountains and Maine's North Woods to the east, and the mountains of Quebec to the north.
"Our Forests Our Future is part of a larger movement to link the last great continuous forests of the northeast," says Van Deusen. "And by doing this we will be able to stabilize native deer, bear, moose, bobcat, and lynx populations. In short, we will be building a modern Vermont that would be recognizable to our Green Mountain Boy ancestors, but with renewable green energy capacity to boot."
In addition to chapter chair Zak Griefen and conservation chair Don Dickson, Van Deusen says the work of volunteer activists Valerie Desmarais in the Northeast Kingdon, Linda Kelly in Montpelier, and Ryan Mason, Melissa Gibbud & Jennifer Laflan in Middlebury has been invaluable.