In March of 1936, Vermonters rejected the Green Mountain Parkway, a Depression-era project that would have mimicked Virginia’s Skyline Drive and, in one version, preserved more than one million acres. Frank Bryan, Vermont’s chronicler of town meeting lore, has called the referendum “the most democratic expression of environmental consciousness in American history.” So bloomed Vermont’s mythical love of the mountains.
Mythologies, however, can illuminate and obscure, reveal fundamental truths or deny uncomfortable facts. Ultimately, though, myths speak as much to the images we conjure up of ourselves as they do to the realities of the past and the present. Deconstructing Vermont’s mountain mythology may help us face up to the challenges our mountains face today.
The present argument over the Lowell wind project illustrates the long-standing and ongoing lovers’ quarrel we Vermonters have had with our mountains and our landscape. Blake Harrison, in his book “The View From Vermont: Tourism and the Making of an American Rural Landscape,” calls this quarrel “a constitutive part of the social relations and power dynamics that define American culture.”
These tensions and dynamics were in full flower during the Green Mountain Parkway debate in the 1930s, and, as Lowell Mountain exemplifies, they continue in the 2010s.
While Bryan’s more recent comments highlight the environmental aspects of that proposal, his analysis in “Yankee Politics in Rural Vermont” portrays a much more complex debate, one with multiple conflicts beyond solely the effects on the physical environment. Would Vermont’s mountains remain unspoiled? Should we open the mountains to more than just hikers? In doing so, would we allow the “wrong kind of people” easy access to our state? Would “hot-dog stands” proliferate along its route?
Partisanship also played a central role. Republicans generally opposed the parkway; Democrats supported it. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that the 1930′s GOP was pro-environment while Democrats were not. Vermont then was still a reliably Republican state, and the prominent role of the federal government in financing and controlling the parkway stoked numerous suspicions. To a significant extent, a person’s vote was colored by party affiliation and their attitude toward FDR and The New Deal.
Suffice; the Town Meeting Day rejection of the parkway, by a vote of 43,176 to 31,101, was one of the most significant events in Vermont’s 20th century history. Although cemented into the Vermont mystique, it is much more ambiguous whether the vote was a bellwether of Vermont’s future environmentalism or a high-water mark, after which the health of our mountain ecology has been mostly downhill. I argue the latter.
George Aiken’s 1941 farewell address to the Legislature was more a harbinger of the future of our mountains. “There has been a great and profitable development in winter sports throughout the state, particularly in the Mansfield and Pico Mountain regions,” he stated, adding in his Aikenesque way, “Vermont is one of the few states that can sell four feet of snow and 20 below zero at a profit.”
We have been successfully selling four feet of snow ever since, profiting some, but certainly not our mountains. Lay a Vermont map plotting our ski areas over the proposed route of the Green Mountain Parkway and the ski areas lie almost exactly where the parkway would have gone.
We should wonder: While we question “industrializing” our ridge lines, have we too easily tolerated “urbanizing” their slopes?
Ben Rose, formerly executive director of the Green Mountain Club, once wrote about the irony that James P. Taylor, a founder of the GMC, staunchly supported the parkway, which the club opposed. In my mind, an even greater irony is that, by voting to save our mountains in 1936, our ancestors may have set in motion their eventual despoilment.
Perhaps we are not such “mountain people” after all, and that may be why our most popular tourist attraction is an ice cream factory.
Bruce S. Post of Essex was Gov. Richard Snelling’s director of planning and research.