A third wave of destruction
Vermont has rarely been kind to its mountains. Two historic waves of human destruction have battered them, each crest followed by a brief trough of recovery. With a new swell forming — mountaintop industrial wind — Vermonters may have a last, best opportunity to prevent a third wave of devastation.
By the mid-19th century, our forests were destroyed, eradicated by a mania for sheep and lumber. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, reflecting on the aftermath in 1963, wrote, “Not even in the cotton and tobacco belt were soils exhausted faster and forests mangled more thoroughly than on the hillsides of Vermont.” The first wave.
In the mid-20th century, Gov. George Aiken unleashed the ski industry, allowing the first ski towers to be built on Mount Mansfield. Three decades later, Walter Hard Jr., the legendary editor of Vermont Life, asked plaintively “Shall Her Mountains Die?” His colleague Samuel Ogden, mourning “our mountain peaks … scarred with the worm-tracks of ski areas,” asked an environmentally existential question, “How long can we proceed along these easy ways before we do become ruined?” The second wave.
Now, in the early 21st century, a third wave is lapping at our summits and ridgelines. Have we learned nothing from our past?
Unfortunately, many industrial wind proponents, including a fair share of Vermont’s major environmental organizations, rationalize this ruin, arguing that Vermont must destroy its mountains in order to save them. They employ environmental relativism, justifying skinning our mountaintops for wind because West Virginia disembowels its mountains for coal. The odd boast “We are not West Virginia,” perversely reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” is neither compelling nor comforting. A dead deer, whether skinned or gutted, is still a dead deer.
Once upon a time in Vermont, there were people who revered our hills and mountains, drawing on them for spiritual strength. Clarence Cowles was one. A founder of the Green Mountain Club, Cowles closed a reminiscence celebrating its 50th anniversary with these words, “We will continue to raise our eyes to the hills,” echoing the words of Psalm 121: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help.”
Today, such sentiments seem quaint, such noble men anachronistic. Our mountains, rather than majestic sanctuaries, are diminished, little more than profit centers for foreign corporations, Wall Street firms and wind barons. Our hills are increasingly a detritus of water parks, roller coasters and other amusements, litter imported from urban America. Our ridges are calibrated in board-feet, vertical drop, kilowatts per hour and, ultimately, money.
Vermont’s mountains, while evoking the infinite, are undeniably finite. The high peaks of the Greens have already been damaged. Of the six Vermont mountains climbed by Benton MacKaye in 1900, when he envisioned creating the Appalachian Trail, only Camel’s Hump remains protected. The iconic Mount Mansfield, our most celebrated summit, is ironically our most ecologically compromised.
Now, the ridgelines parallel to the Greens are targets for 200 miles or more of blasting, bulldozing and road-building for industrial wind — the so-called Blittersdorf Buildout. What will be left? Will wind turbines become totems of deception high on our hills, ephemeral symbols of the delusion that technology will save us from generations of human folly, consumption and destruction? Will any politician acknowledge that climate change proves our easy ways are indeed ruining us, that there are no simple, painless solutions, and that further environmental damage is foolish?
It is time to pause, to reflect on our legacy of devastation and to determine what we will bequeath the future. It is time to answer Walter Hard’s hard question, “Shall her mountains die?” It is time to ask, despite our pretensions of environmental virtue, if mountain destruction is simply and sadly part of Vermont’s DNA.
Bruce S. Post writes and lectures on Vermont history. He was chief of staff for Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois and state director for Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont.