by Annette Smith
The recent proposal by Vermont Huts Association and Moosalamoo Association to construct a “hut” next to Silver Lake in the Moosalamoo National Recreation and Education Area in Leicester (Addison County) reveals numerous problems with the USDA/Forest Service’s management of the Green Mountain National Forest.
Pitched as connecting trails and establishing a series of huts for the benefit of backcountry recreationists and people who may not otherwise be able to access the national forest, the proposal does not withstand scrutiny.
The Green Mountain National Forest is responding to a proposal by Vermont Huts Association and Moosalamoo Association to amend their permit for the Chittenden Brook Hut, located more than 15 miles away and in a different management area than Silver Lake.
The Chittenden Brook Hut went through a process established by the National Environmental Policy Act called environmental assessment as part of the Robinson Integrated Resource Plan. Nobody commented in opposition.
By attempting to amend an existing permit, the applicants and the Green Mountain National Forest are engaged in a scoping process that considers the Silver Lake proposal to be categorically excluded from requiring an environmental assessment, which means there is no public process beyond the 45-day comment period that ended July 11.
In addition, the Green Mountain National Forest is using categorical exclusions for several related projects — upgrade to parking area, new trail, upgrades to Silver Lake Campground — that eliminate the environmental assessment public process and fail to consider cumulative impacts.
Categorical exclusion, the lowest level of National Environmental Policy Act analysis, is appropriate for a number of listed items, including reconstruction of existing huts. New huts are not considered in the U.S. Forest Service guidance for categorical exclusions.
The Green Mountain National Forest has so far found that no extraordinary circumstances exist that would require an environmental assessment, though four of the seven items the forest service identifies as “extraordinary circumstances” exist in the Silver Lake area.
Public engagement in forest service planning is extremely challenging, as there are numerous documents to review and a complex set of policies to consider. The only public forum held for the Silver Lake “hut” proposal was sponsored by the proponents, during which the majority of people present — who use and enjoy Silver Lake — spoke in opposition.
The more people who have learned about the proposal and the process (or lack thereof), the more it has become clear that something is seriously wrong with how the Green Mountain National Forest is being managed. This is in part due to the failure of the U.S. Forest Service to update the Green Mountain National Forest plan, which should be done every 15 years and was last done in 2006, 16 years ago. Green Mountain National Forest staff have said recently that a plan update is expected in 2030 and there is no funding to do a new plan now.
The 2006 Forest Plan does not mention a network of 30 to 45 huts or the Velomont Bike Trail that are being developed without amending the plan to consider public input.
Outside of any established forest service process, the Green Mountain National Forest has allowed the Vermont Huts Association to rent the Chittenden Brook Hut to its members for a week before the general public can make a reservation, and members get a 15% discount. There is no precedent for this practice, as the forest service handbook requires reservations to go through recreation.gov. Some reservations on public lands, such as ski areas and Appalachian Mountain Club trails, are done through a “hotel” program distinctly different from an unattended “hut,” as they provide services and amenities not offered by the Vermont Huts Association.
The huts association’s application for amendment to enable the Silver Lake “Hut” was not provided to the public by the forest service and was only received upon request of one citizen on the day of the deadline for submitting comments. In it, Vermont Huts Association says, “The total cost of the hut is approximately $290,000.” The cost is a head-scratcher, considering the Chittenden Brook Hut was reported to cost about $70,000.
“The U.S. Forest Service is privatizing our Green Mountain National Forest for the benefit of private interests,” says MIchael Kellett of RESTORE the North Woods. “The proposed construction of a Silver Lake ‘Hut’ is another example of this privatization, along with the Deerfield Wind industrial energy development, the privately controlled Chittenden Brook ‘Hut,’ and numerous logging projects that make money for private industry while devastating our forests.
“The forest service is approving these sweetheart deals, despite the fact that they were not included in the obsolete 2006 forest plan, no valid environmental analysis has been done, and they are opposed by the public.”
More than 200 people, many of whom use and enjoy Silver Lake, commented in opposition to the proposal to construct a 25-foot-tall residential lodging facility heated by propane with indoor lighting. Proponents mostly commented using a form letter and demonstrate no direct connection or use of Silver Lake.
Vermonters for a Clean Environment’s comments were filed on behalf of our members who use and enjoy Silver Lake. It’s the only organization to sue the USDA/USFS in the last 25 years over inappropriate management of the Green Mountain National Forest. It is time for the forest service to start listening to the public and do what’s right for Vermont’s people and forests.
Annette Smith of Danby is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.