Much like a joy-riding ATVer testing the power of his off-road machine, the leadership of Vermont’s Natural Resources agency seems hell-bent on riding roughshod over any obstacle in the way of its proposal to open state-owned forests, parks, and wildlife areas to recreational ATV trails.
As I wrote earlier on this blog, the agency leadership revved its engines and ran right over opposition from concerned members of the public who commented on the rule–by the agency’s own estimate, commenters opposed the proposal by a ratio of 4-to-1. The professional objections of its own scientists, game wardens, and on-the-ground land managers didn’t slow agency leaders down either. In public documents obtained by CLF and reported in the press, career Agency employees expressed concerns about the damage to public and private property caused by illegal ATV use that ANR already struggles to control with existing resources. They also worried about the strain that managing the numerous public safety and environmental impacts surrounding ATV trails would place on an understaffed agency reeling from more job cuts.
Vermont’s legislative process and the rule of law is the last obstacle in the way of ANR’s ATV proposal. With your help, this could be the obstacle that stops this irresponsible proposal in its tracks.
Prior to a hearing of the legislative committee that serves as an important check against arbitrary and illegal power-grabs by the political appointees who run state agencies, news reports indicated that a bi-partisan majority of the committee’s legislators are prepared to formally object to the Agency’s proposal. At the hearing, legislators listened politely as the agency’s top lawyer and its Secretary essentially claimed that the Secretary has inherent authority to allow state lands to be used however he sees fit and further that a single ambiguous sentence in a 1983 motor vehicle law specifically grants the Secretary unfettered discretion to write rules opening state lands to ATVs. But the legislators had done their homework and had an answer for the agency’s questionable legal analysis.
Representative Richard Marek (D-Newfane) proposed that the committee adopt a written objection to the rule that debunks the Agency’s claims demonstrating how it is contrary to the legislature’s intent and beyond the authority the legislature has granted to the agency. You can read the committee’s proposed objection on CLF’s web site. In keeping with the narrow focus of the committee, the proposed objection articulates reasons why the rule is an affront to good government process and the rule of law. It doesn’t mention the many policy reasons why the ATV proposal is deeply flawed because those questions are best left to the full legislature. It’s pretty clear that is where this issue may be headed come January. A defiant agency leadership seems poised to adopt the rule even if the committee formally votes to object at its next meeting on December 15.
This sets the agency and the full legislature on a potential collision course and may also land the agency in court. Though ANR can adopt the rule over the objection of the rules committee, the legislature could completely repeal the rule by passing a new law. State law also makes it much easier for groups like CLF to challenge illegal rules when an agency moves forward in spite of a legislative objection.
Here are three ways you can help protect Vermont forests, parks, and wildlife areas from being transformed into motorized theme parks by ANR:
- Call your legislator and voice your opposition. This is especially important if your legislator is on the administrative rules committee scheduled to vote on December 15.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local paper expressing your opposition.
- Make a donation to CLF so that we can continue our efforts to protect state lands in the legislature and, if need be, in court.