For Immediate Release, December 15, 2009
||Mollie Matteson, Center for Biological Diversity, (802) 434-2388 (office), (802) 318-1487 (cell)
Anthony Iarrapino, Conservation Law Foundation, (802) 223-5992
Plan to Open Vermont State Lands to All-terrain Vehicles Rejected by State Committee
MONTPELIER, Vt.— A proposal to open up Vermont’s state lands to all-terrain vehicles suffered a significant setback today when a state legislative committee that reviews new rules voted 7-0 to reject the plan. After two hearings on the matter earlier this fall, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules decided that the Agency of Natural Resources, which had proposed the rule, lacked sufficient legal authority to institute such a sweeping policy change. Currently, ATVs are prohibited on Vermont state lands.
The rejection of the rule was based solely on procedural grounds and did not tackle substantive issues such as the environmental impacts of ATVs or the impact on other users of public lands. Still, one of the fatal flaws in the rule, according to the committee, was that it failed to provide any scientific information or support for allowing ATVs on state lands. The provision of scientific background is a requirement of any new administrative rule.
Said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, Vermont, of today’s decision: “This is a great gain for Vermont citizens and for public lands. The rules committee recognizes that management of our state lands needs to be based in transparent process and good science, and the ATV rule was based in neither.”
The little-known rules committee, which generally plays a behind the scenes role in assuring that state rules and regulations are backed by statute and follow proper process, had been thrust into a more prominent role as gatekeeper because of the highly controversial nature of the ATV plan. The rule was first released earlier this year in May. Nearly 2,000 people submitted comments in response, with opinion running 4 to 1 against the proposal. Over the summer, the Agency of Natural Resources made some minor revisions to the rule, then re-submitted it for the rules committee’s review this fall.
Anthony Iarrapino, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier, stated: “The state is proposing a major change in land-management policy that will expose Vermont’s public lands and the Vermonters who use them to the increased safety risks and environmental damage of ATVs. Agency leaders should abandon this unpopular and unwise policy change, now that a bipartisan legislative committee has declared it illegal.”
The committee objected most strenuously to the Agency of Natural Resource’s claim that its rulemaking authority derived from a brief clause in a state motor vehicle law that actually generally prohibits ATVs on state land. The committee wrote in its findings: “…it is inconceivable that the legislature ever intended to create operative rulemaking authority for a significant change in permissible uses of state lands by using a single clause in a motor vehicle law, with no further policy guidance whatsoever.”
Today’s decision does not stop the ATV rule from being enacted if the Agency of Natural Resources decides to go ahead with it. The committee’s rejection of the rule does, however, provide greater weight to any legal challenge to the rule that may occur in the future. Also, the Vermont legislature may attempt to tackle the ATV issue in the next session, which starts in January. The ruling lends support to ATV opponents, and further bolsters strong public sentiment against the ATV plan.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Conservation Law Foundation works to solve the most significant environmental challenges facing New England. Its advocates use law, economics and science to create innovative strategies to conserve natural resources, protect public health and promote vital communities in the region.