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Sterling College students fight to save their “classroom”

LOWELL – Although Sterling College has decided not to take an official position regarding the Lowell wind project, many individuals affiliated with the college are passionate about protecting the ridge line. So passionate, in fact, that they are speaking out against the development and engaging in civil disobedience training and “camp-ins” on the site, despite a court order prohibiting them from being within 1000 feet of the area used by Green Mountain Power (GMP) to blast and erect wind turbines.

Sterling College let the students hold the civil disobedience training on campus.

For many years, the ridge line has served as an outdoor classroom for Conservation Ecology, Natural History, and Environmental Processes classes. The Lowell ridge line has been the location for the annual Winter Expedition, which began in the 1950s. All new students participate in the expedition, which is a four-day, three-night camping trip. It takes place in the middle of December and includes survival training. Students must survive without the use of tents.

“It’s very challenging but we’ve never lost a student,” said Tim Patterson, a spokesperson with Sterling College. “It’s a rite of passage.”

After making the trek across the ridge line, students and faculty walk back to Craftsbury and are greeted with cheers from their peers. “It’s a great moment when they appear in sight,” Patterson said. Completing the trip by walking to the finish is very symbolic.

Patterson said that if the turbine project is constructed, participants could walk below the ridge line or use an alternate location, but it wouldn’t be the same experience.

Patterson said that he has heard from students and staff who feel the Lowell wind project is out of scale with Vermont’s working landscape. “It’s not sustainable from a local grassroots perspective,” he quoted others as saying.

Patterson said that while the ridge line is a rare and fragile ecosystem that should not be subject from such development, Sterling College does not take an official side.

Sterling students study many subjects on the Lowell Mountain range including watershed monitoring and wildlife habitat. Patterson said that the development will change these systems and the studies will continue as an outdoor lab and classroom. “The project will change the nature of the area,” he said.

A group referred to as the Mountain Occupiers, or the “Campers,” has been staying on the ridge line near the construction site. Many campers stayed within the 1000-foot safety zone during blasting, forcing the blast schedule to be altered. An Orleans County Superior Court Judge ruled last week that anyone within the safety zone would be in criminal contempt and could be arrested.

Friday morning, members of the Vermont State Police, Orleans County Sheriff’s Office and the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Office went to Lowell Mountain to serve the court order to protesters who were within the 1000-foot safe zone during blasting operations, but no one was arrested, according to police.

Through the course of the day, and two separate blasting operations, troopers and sheriff’s deputies found eight individuals within the safety zone. The court order was read aloud by law enforcement officers who advised individuals that they were prohibited from being present within 1000 feet of the northwesterly boundary of Donald and Shirley Nelson’s property, where it adjoined with Benjamin “Trip” Wileman’s land, which is being leased by GMP for the project. All of the individuals complied with the court order and were escorted away from the safe zone.

Members of law enforcement stayed in the vicinity throughout the day to ensure public safety for all those involved until blasting operations were complete, according to a statement issued by Captain Tim Clouatre, B Troop Commander, Vermont State Police.