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When it comes to state-managed public lands, what is sacred?

by Zack Porter

Please take action today by signing our petition to protect Camel's Hump and VT state public lands, and a letter will be sent with each signature to Vermont officials.

June 14, 2022

Editor’s Note: On June 14th, Standing Trees submitted a formal petition and letter to Vermont officials demanding that the state halt logging in the Camel’s Hump Management Unit and comply with 10 V.S.A. § 2603, which requires the state to promulgate rules to govern state land management. You can read our press release here. We eagerly await the state’s response.

Mountains and sky over a lake.
Camel's Hump State Park crowns the Champlain Valley.

Some folks pay $10,000 for a painting and hang it on the wall where their friends can see it while I buy a whole mountain for that much money and it is hung by nature where everybody can see it and it is infinitely more handsome than any picture ever painted.

--Joseph Battell

The concept of public welfare is broad and inclusive... The values it represents are spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as monetary. It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean.

-- William O. Douglas (U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1939-1975)


Camel’s Hump is not just any mountain. Vermont’s State Parks and Natural Areas are not just any land. But to the State of Vermont, very little – it would seem – is sacred.

In the face of climate change and extinction, this needs to change.

Last December, on the same day that the state released its much-anticipated Climate Action Plan, which calls for the state to protect 9% of all forests as wildlands to keep carbon out of the atmosphere and increase resilience to droughts and floods, the state also quietly released another plan that takes the state in the opposite direction.

Waterfall, rocks, water.
A cascade in Camel's Hump State Park. Public lands surrounding Camel's Hump harbor important headwaters.

More than ten years in the making, the Camel’s Hump Management Unit Long Range Management Plan calls for 3,750-acres of logging over 15 years in Camel’s Hump State Park and surrounding public lands, endangering imperiled species like the Northern Long-eared Bat, and heightening the flood risk for downstream communities. According to the plan, illegally-cut ski glades could be endorsed and expanded in the Camel’s Hump Natural Area, which – by law – is supposed to be managed for the “preservation of [its] natural condition.” New mountain bike trails would be constructed through the Phen Basin Ecological Protection Zone, where foot traffic is the only legal use to protect the sensitive ecosystem.

With Camel’s Hump, the state of Vermont had an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate vision and leadership to match the urgency of the climate and extinction crises. Not only is there a Climate Action Plan fresh off the press, but there is also a Lake Champlain restoration plan, a State Hazard Mitigation Plan, and a plan to retain and enhance the biodiversity of the state called Vermont Conservation Design. The Camel’s Hump management plan should have put these big picture documents into action on the ground. It does not. No state of Vermont long range management plan ever has.

In 1911, Joseph Battell made a remarkable gift to Vermont, 1,200-acres atop the summit of the state’s most iconic mountain would be forever “preserved in a primeval state” as a State Park. The gift was prescient: in the 111 years that have elapsed, most major peaks in the Green Mountains and all other summits over 4,000-feet have been festooned – some would say desecrated – with roads, resorts, lifts, communications towers, and ski trails. Camel’s Hump, in contrast, is the centerpiece of a 26,000-acre, largely-undeveloped block of public land including Camel’s Hump State Park, Camel’s Hump State Forest, and Robbins Mountain and Huntington Gap Wildlife Management Areas.

Alpine summit mountain view sky
Camel's Hump's lofty summit, protected by Joseph Battell and gifted to the people of Vermont, is home to rare alpine species.

Camel’s Hump stands alone, but not only for what is absent. Far more important, is what is there: mature forests stretch for nearly twelve miles between Appalachian Gap and the Winooski River; a rich mosaic of forest, wetland, cliff, and alpine habitats span nearly four thousand vertical feet, providing astounding elevational connectivity; black bear, moose, bobcat, beaver, Bicknell’s Thrush, and Northern Long-eared Bat, wood turtle, Jefferson salamander, brook trout, and subarctic darner are just a sampling of the myriad species that call Camel’s Hump home.

Of course, Camel’s Hump has a storied history that begins long before there was such a thing as Vermont. In a piece written for the Green Mountain Club, Standing Trees Advisory Board member Rich Holschuh notes:

“The Abenaki knew this place as Tawapodiiwajo, meaning ‘place to sit in mountain,’ or ‘saddle mountain,’ or ‘mountain seat.’ This makes perfect sense on a titanic scale when it is understood that the giant culture hero Gluskabe used the mountain as his personal seat in some traditional stories. Another Abenaki cognate for the peak, akin to the later Camel’s Hump moniker, is ‘Moziozagan’ for ‘moose’s shoulder,’ or ‘moose’s hump.’”

From many corners of Vermont, the distinctive shape of Camel’s Hump stands proud and tall on the horizon as a lofty anchor of our common Vermont-ness; a compass point showing us the way homeward. Designated a National Natural Landmark, Camel’s Hump was – at one time – proposed to be the site of a Green Mountain National Park, and someday again could be once more. Former Vermont Life Editor Mary Hegarty Nowlan, commented, “Camels Hump is so untouched by development that everybody can relate to it as the iconic emblem of Vermont.”

Camel's Hump-area residents Jamie Ervin and Alan Pierce measure a 150+ year old maple in a proposed logging unit.

Camel’s Hump might be exceptional, but its plight is indicative of threats facing all state lands in Vermont. State land managers are required by law to develop sideboards – or rules – for what is and isn’t appropriate on state lands, and to guide plan development. Without those sideboards, state land management planning is a free-for-all, open-ended adventure in executive privilege, effectively removing the “public” from public lands.

The crisis at Camel’s Hump is a rallying cry for all who care about our climate, and the more-than-human life with whom we share this planet. More than that, this crisis is about a singular landscape that defines us as Vermonters; a sky-scraping summit that both inspires and reflects our values. What are we? Who are we? The way we relate to and interact with public lands is a barometer of how far we’ve come – or how little we’ve changed – since early European-American settlers denuded Vermont and robbed future generations of our state’s true beauty and its rich ecological heritage.

In 2022, we do not have old-growth forests where one can marvel at nature’s raw beauty; we do not have wild places to listen to the elk’s bugle or the wolf’s howl; we do not have rivers and streams overflowing with salmon or migrating flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds.

We cannot fully undo the damage done, but through humble and enlightened leadership, future generations may have the opportunity to experience a Vermont that we can only imagine.

Zack Porter is the Executive Director of Standing Trees.

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