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Vermont Revising Management Plan for Northeast Kingdom Access

Montpelier — Vermont is revising the management and public access plans for a vast section of the Northeast Kingdom that was the focus of a protracted, bitter public debate over traditional land uses versus conservation needs after a private company put the land up for sale in the late 1990s.

But it doesn’t appear that revising the management plan for the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area and the public access plan for land now owned by the Plum Creek Timber Co. will provoke the same debates as last time, when the area was referred to as the Champion Lands.

Now known as The Kingdom Heritage Lands, the 133,000-acre tract includes the 23,000 acres of the West Mountain — the state’s largest wildlife management area — 26,000 acres of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge and 184,000 acres now owned by the Plum Creek Timber Co.

The original debate pitted environmentalists against hunting, fishing and logging interests as well those wanting access to scores of privately leased camps on the remote wetlands, streams and forests that are home to many forms of wildlife. The lands are also popular for bird-watching, snowmobiling, and horseback riding.

In the years since the dispute, the resentment from what some felt were the most onerous aspects of the original deal — access to private camps — has been eased, said Steven McLeod, the executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, an advocacy group founded in response to the Champion Lands proposal.

The current draft plan for West Mountain would close some roads, but others would be opened, a compromise amenable to both sides.

“There was a lot of resentment,” McLeod said. “If we can successfully complete this compromise, we’re in hopes that this will go a long way to soothing any lingering resentment from the earlier process.”

Phil Huffman, of the Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy, agreed.

“We aren’t necessarily getting everything that we might want from a strictly ecological perspective,” he said. “But that said, we feel that the draft update … strikes a reasonable balance in trying to meet the needs and interests and perspectives of a lot of different constituents.”

The lands are now managed through a series of agreements that were reached after Champion International Corp. decided in 1997 to sell 139,000 acres of timberland, about a third of the land area of Essex County, the state’s least populous.

The state is now revising the management plans for West Mountain and the public access agreement for the Plum Creek land. As part of the process, there are three public hearings scheduled: April 29 in Island Pond, April 30 in Montpelier and May 5 in Lyndonville.