Brattleboro Man Fights to Protect National Forest
By SUSAN SMALLHEER
December 29, 1995
BRATTLEBORO--He's either a genius or an eco-terrorist, depending on who you talk to. But on one thing people agree: Mathew Jacobson has single handedly stopped logging in the 350,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest.
Jacobson is the executive director of Green Mountain Forest Watch, a small grass-roots environmental group based in Brattleboro. For five years, he has been fighting the U.S. Forest Service over its logging plans, most fiercely over its plan to clear-cut in the Lamb Brook roadless area near Wilmington.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha handed Jacobson, Green Mountain Forest Watch and a coalition of big-name national environmental groups their biggest victory and instant credibility.
Murtha ruled that the U.S. Forest Service was "arbitrary and capricious" in its decision not to do a full-fledged environmental impact statement about its controversial plans to log the 5,500-acre Lamb Brook area. The region is considered an important nursery for the state's black bears, as well as prime habitat for migratory tropical songbirds. The plan would have clear-cut 300 acres and logged an additional 1,600.
The Forest Service has 60 days to decide whether to challenge Murtha's decision, which both sides say has wide ramifications for federal lands, both inside and outside Vermont.
For Jacobson, 30, the victory was sweet beyond belief. He makes no apologies about his goal: to stop logging permanently in the Green Mountain National Forest and let it go as wild as it can.
"Whenever I speak to people about the Forest Service's assault on our public forests, I am invariably asked why I don't go to Washington to lobby for new laws. The fact is we already have great environmental laws in this country. The problem is they are continuously violated by the agencies sworn to uphold them," he said.
Jacobson argues that Vermont's private and state forests, as opposed to national forests, should be the source of logs for Vermont sawmills. And he protests the export of Vermont resources-unprocessed logs-out of state.
The two recent trade treaties, GATT and NAFTA, are putting more economic pressure on Vermonters to log their land, he said.
"He's a genius," said Stephen Saltonstall, the Harvard-educated Bennington lawyer who volunteered his time to represent the National Audubon Society, the Vermont Audubon Council, RESTORE: the North Woods, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and Preserve Appalachian Wilderness, as well as Green Mountain Forest Watch, in the recent lawsuit. It was Jacobson, Saltonstall said, who put the coalition together. "Without the coalition, we wouldn't have had sufficient clout," he said.
Saltonstall has his own environmental credentials, as the former board chairman of the Vermont Nature Conservancy. But he lavishes praise on Jacobson, saying he has the leadership and vision to be "the next David Brower," referring to the founder of The Sierra Club.
The Forest Service is publicly neutral about Jacobson. Forest Supervisor James Barthelme will only say that the public has a right to comment and appeal Forest Service plans. "We tend to welcome those kinds of challenges," he said. Barthelme replaced former supervisor Terry Hoffman, whose decisions were challenged regularly by Jacobson. Barthelme said the environmental assessment the Forest Service did on the Lamb Brook timber sale was 60 pages long and addressed the impacts. But Kathleen Diehl, the spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said forest service employees feel unfairly attacked by Green Mountain Forest Watch and victimized by its tactics. Roberta Borland, the executive director of the
Vermont Forest Products Association, said Jacobson is a "terrorist" with a Macintosh computer who has stopped the U.S. Forest Service dead in its logging tracks.
In the Lamb Brook case; it was a three-mile logging road and its impact on bear and bird habitat that stopped the plan, according to Murtha's decision. "He's basically shut the National Forest down," said Borland, "at a significant loss to the forest products industry." Borland cited Jacobson's past ties with Earth First!, a national radical environmental group, as proof that Jacobson's group means harm. Borland has gone so far as to distribute a leaflet to Vermont legislators complete with a picture of Jacobson dressed as Pan, the Greek god of the forest, when he was leading demonstrations down south in the late 1980s against U.S. Forest Service timber sales. The photo appeared on the front page of the Atlanta Constitution.
Jacobson said he left Earth First! because of rumors of violence, such as spiking trees, something he doesn't support. Jacobson, a Long Island, NY, native who grew up skiing at Stratton Mountain, has always loved Vermont. He moved here permanently in 1990, working alternately as a waiter and chef in Brattleboro
restaurants and as an activist. Jacobson has raised $75,000 in the past two years to fund Green Mountain Forest Watch, receiving a $25,000 grant from the Merck Foundation, $10,000 from Patagonia, Inc. and another $10,000 from Human-i-Tees. The group has 600 to 700 members spread throughout Vermont.
Jacobson traces his devotion to the forest to a camping trip to the White Mountains his senior year of college. An encounter with a moose, in all its primordial stature, led him to hike the Appalachian Trail. Attorneys Andrew Goldberg, Stephen Saltonstall, and Lewis Milford said Jacobson has succeeded in building a citizen network to protest the U.S. Forest plans, and that is his greatest accomplishment and strength. They all pointed to his phenomenal energy.
"He works for peanuts and he doesn't get paid for long periods of time. He's given the environmental movement in Vermont a real kick in the pants," said Saltonstall. "And he's driven the Forest Service crazy, which they deserve."