A Pragmatic Streak Colors Dean’s Green Credentials

Times Staff Writer

For almost any company, let alone an industrial plant, the “campus” of Husky Injection Moldings Ltd. is implausibly idyllic -- 700 rolling acres sewn with birch and elm trees and fairly shimmering one recent day with two feet of pristine snow.

The site near Lake Champlain used to be farmland, something Howard Dean likes to say he went out of his way to protect from development when he was Vermont’s governor.

It was Dean, however, who was the driving force in luring Canada-based Husky to the state and helping it build on the previously undeveloped site. Having lost businesses before because of objections from environmentalists, he pushed the Husky deal through so quickly that its opponents were left to complain only afterward.

On the presidential campaign trail, Dean paints his environmental positions in pine green and lambastes President Bush on the issue, saying the administration has caused “irreparable harm to our environment” and “never misses a chance to put private interests above the public good.”


Dean may well be the top choice of many environmentalists nationwide. But in his rural home state -- where strict preservation laws are rivaled perhaps only by those in Oregon -- his campaign trail self-portraiture as an environmental crusader is greeted with caution.

Dean’s 11-year record as governor suggests he is much more a pragmatist on environmental issues than an ideologue, a centrist who often catered to business interests first, addressing the accompanying environmental concerns later. And his focus on a few pet environmental projects -- while largely ignoring others -- left some here feeling that Dean lacked a broad vision for the environment.

“In Vermont, the environment is a consideration in almost everything we do. We hold our leaders to a high standard,” said Mark Sinclair, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group considered to be moderate. “But [Dean] failed to show real leadership on most environmental issues [and] missed a lot of opportunities. He is portraying himself as being a lot greener today than he was, in action, as governor of Vermont.”

Democratic state Sen. Dick Mazza defends Dean’s record, calling him “a great friend of Vermont’s environment,” and said his style was to avoid the layers of regulatory bureaucracy by hammering out agreements.


“He used common sense,” Mazza said. “There was no way he was going to cave in and weaken the environmental laws of Vermont. But he often tried to get people together and form some sort of compromise. And that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Virtually everyone here is swift to credit Dean with several environmental successes, most notably helping permanently conserve a total of 470,000 acres of forests and fields.

But Dean acknowledges he was frustrated by the often drawn-out legal processes surrounding environmental regulation, and some critics contend he alternately dawdled or sought quick fixes.

During five campaigns for governor, the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club never once backed him, opting to support longshot third-party candidates instead.

“The environmental movement in Vermont is interesting,” Dean said in an interview. “Many [environmentalists] ought to spend time in other states to see how tough it is” to achieve their goals.

None of Dean’s critics suggest he sought to overturn existing laws. But they accuse him of undermining the state’s core environmental regulatory statute, known as Act 250, with public attacks on regulators and the process. They also say he did little to strengthen renewable energy efforts or fight urban sprawl.

Environmentalists are especially critical of Dean’s handling of water pollution problems.

Dean did not lobby hard enough, they allege, when the Legislature repeatedly refused to beef up the budget of the Agency of Natural Resources, the state’s pollution watchdog group that is responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Water Act.


Environmentalists charge that, in large part because of a lack of agency oversight, 26 watersheds are now highly polluted, including the state’s prized Lake Champlain, which is more toxic today than when Dean took office in 1991.

The lake is so polluted that in some parts, phosphorous levels exceed allowable levels by more than 100%. When phosphorous-fed algae turned a part of the lake that extends into Canada into so much fetid pea soup last summer, Quebec’s environment minister, Thomas Mulcair, called it an “ecological catastrophe” and announced a cleanup plan.

Vermont’s current governor, Republican Jim Douglas, followed with his own plan, a $139-million effort that aims to reduce the lake’s pollution levels to meet federal standards.

Vermont takes in more than $3 billion a year from tourists, much of it from hikers and campers in summer, foliage watchers in the fall and skiers in the winter. Politicians from every party must show some environmental sensitivity if they want to be elected. And even Dean’s harshest critics agree that, at heart, he is an environmentalist.

An avid hiker, he trekked the entire 265-mile Long Trail that runs north to south across the state. And with Mazza’s help, Dean dramatically increased state efforts to buy the private land through which the trail ran, funneling between $300,000 and $500,000 to the effort each year. The state now owns nearly the entire stretch.

In 1999, he and his son, Paul, sailed the 120-mile length of Lake Champlain. His gubernatorial photograph in the statehouse looks like an advertisement for an outdoor clothing company (some dubbed it “L.L. Dean”).

Rather than help create a good relationship with environmental groups, however, Dean’s clear love of the outdoors perplexed many: Why, they wondered, did the hiking, sailing, skiing governor seem to fight them so hard?

For instance, in 1993, a company called C&S; Grocers came up against strong opposition from neighbors and environmentalists when it tried to expand its Brattleboro facility by building a second warehouse in an industrialized area.


“If this was out in a farmer’s field or someplace, I could understand” the opposition, Dean said at the time. “But this is an industrial park, zoned for this sort of thing.”

Under Act 250, the company needed the approval of a quasi-judicial board that is supposed to take politics out of environmental decision-making: If a proposal could not meet legal standards, the board could not issue a permit.

After months of wrangling with the board, C&S; dropped its proposal and took its new warehouse, 300 jobs -- and later its entire outfit -- to Massachusetts.

A furious Dean publicly criticized the board and the Act 250 process -- something no previous governor had done.

In a letter to Dean, environmental groups who opposed the C&S; plan said that his excoriation of the board members “encourages the public to believe that politics, not law, is what matters in the protection of the environment.”

Dean learned much from the fight, environmentalists and business leaders say. And years later, when Husky came knocking -- with promises of 400 jobs -- he quietly threw the weight of his office behind securing its business. The secretive plan even had a code name: Operation Big Dog.

With the governor’s strong backing, Husky got its permits to locate in a farm field in a matter of days, a process that might have taken months or even years. It was all over before opponents could organize.

As governor and as a presidential hopeful, Dean has made it clear that he believes development and preservation efforts not only can but must coexist.

“We located a big factory ... in a farmer’s field,” he said. “I’m sure [environmental groups] didn’t like that. I didn’t like that, either. But if it was that or nothing, I wanted the jobs.”

If Dean’s handling of environmental issues as governor was more complex than he seems to suggest on the stump, even critics praise his record as a conservationist.

“In that respect, he was an exceptional leader,” said Bob Klein, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s state chapter.

His major effort came in 1997, when he pushed through a complex move to buy and conserve 133,000 acres owned by a timber company in a rugged area of the state known as the Northeast Kingdom. There remains debate over how much of the land should be open to hunters or snowmobilers, but most everyone considers the deal momentous.

Although known for his fiscal restraint as governor, Dean spent twice as much as federal regulations require on bike paths and sidewalks. He passed a law requiring that products containing mercury be labeled, and he helped create a much-studied program called Efficiency Vermont that uses electricity surcharges to help businesses develop more efficient manufacturing and other processes.

And when Wal-Mart began planning to build stores across Vermont, Dean flew to the company’s Arkansas headquarters. “He told them, ‘If you want to build your giant stores outside the downtowns, we’ll fight you every step of the way,’ ” said Sinclair. “But if you downsize and come downtown, we’re open for business.”

Now, rather than sucking business out of the town of Rutland, municipal officials have written their downtown revitalization plan around its smaller, city-center Wal-Mart.

Although few environmentalists welcomed the Wal-Marts, they recognized the inevitability of the retailer’s arrival, and some applaud the agreement Dean worked out.

Conservationists also signed on, reluctantly, to a Dean-brokered plan that in the mid-1990s ended a stalemate between some ski resorts and environmental groups over the resorts’ desire to pull more water from streams to fuel their snowmaking machines.

Overall, the criticism that continually surfaces about Dean’s record -- even from some in the business community -- is that he never devised a comprehensive stewardship plan for the environment.

“Some could argue that [pleasing no one] meant he was doing the right thing,” said Chuck Nichols, senior vice president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “But I don’t think that’s the case. Instead of having a proactive, visionary approach, [Dean’s] was more a reactive, oh-I-got-a-problem approach.”


Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.