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‘We can’t rely on winter’

May 2, 2024

Welch comes to Catamount touting climate change bill

Sen. Peter Welch speaks at a press conference on April 25 at Williston’s Catamount Community Forest promoting new legislation that would reward communities that help build electrical transmission capacity, necessary for expanding access to renewable energy. Observer photo by Al Frey

Sen. Peter Welch chose Williston’s Catamount Community Forest to rally support last week for climate change mitigation legislation he is promoting alongside a congresswoman from New Hampshire. 

Why Catamount? Its natural beauty and proximity to suburban Chittenden County were factors, as was Welch’s friendship with Catamount Outdoor Family Center (COFC) founder Jim McCullough, his former colleague in the Vermont Legislature. But more than that is Catamount’s position as a uniquely impacted winter sports outfitter in the global warming age. 

COFC Executive Director John Atkinson spoke during Welch’s visit about the mild, muddy winter that was, highlighting  what he expects will be a future of inconsistent cross country skiing on the publicly owned property. He described how continual rain and melt cycles left the center with bare, unskiable trails during portions of this past winter. The only packable snow, he lamented, came during spring storms.

“We can’t really rely on winter as a source of revenue any longer,” Atkinson told the gathered crowd last Wednesday. “The chances are too big that we will fail if we keep hoping that it will support us going forward, and our trails, programs, camps and clinics will struggle because of that. Winter is no longer a promise for us. It’s a bonus at best.

“The Catamount Outdoor Family Center is on the leading edge of warming for Vermont ski areas,” Atkinson continued. “We are one of the lowest elevation centers in the state, and we’re further from the mountains and closer to Lake Champlain.”

The center is preparing for a future more reliant on spring and summer mountain biking and trail-running operations.

Welch’s bill, the “Energizing Our Communities Act” that he is promoting with Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, is aimed at speeding the buildout of renewable energy transmission. It would use funds approved in last year’s $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act to incentivize communities to host renewable transmission infrastructure. Incentives would come in the form of grants for projects like broadband internet infrastructure, land conservation, school construction and health care facilities. 

“Transmission capacity is vital to renewable electricity transmission,” a memo from Welch’s office reads. “As they support our clean energy future through transmission capacity expansion, communities should benefit directly from their participation in the process. Fostering a strong relationship between developers and the communities hosting transmission projects is key to achieving the upgrades we need.”

Ted Brady, a Williston resident and executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, noted that Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) transmission lines already bisect the Catamount Community Forest. He praised the bill for recognizing the impact transmission lines have on local communities. 

Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, speaking at the press conference on Thursday, praised the proposed bill for recognizing the impact transmission lines have on local communities. Observer photo by Al Frey

“(They) aren’t exactly the most attractive thing, but you do recognize that they are going to a greater good,” Brady said. “Municipalities like Williston and others across the state have to put up with (them), and there’s an appropriate place for there to be a partnership between the federal government, the state government and local government … to invest in our communities and recognize that there is some level of disruption when we’re going to this new grid.”

Brady’s organization, along with the national organization it is affiliated with, the National League of Cities and Towns — as advocates for the needs of local governments — welcome the federal funding that would reward local communities for hosting renewable energy transmission projects.

“It’s a really neat partnership to recognize that our future energy needs are directly tied to our municipal needs and what our residents in a town like Williston demand and expect of their government,” Brady said. “We’re really excited about this opportunity and look forward to helping Sen. Welch turn this thing into law.”

The legislation has support from Protect Our Winters, a climate change policy advocacy group led by winter sports athletes, and by Burton Snowboards. Maine skier Blake Keough of Protect Our Winters and Ashley Laporte, Burton’s vice president of purpose and impact, spoke in favor of the legislation at the Catamount event.

“Let’s join forces,” Keough said, “embrace renewable energy, reinvest in our towns and neighborhoods, and pave the way for a brighter future together.”

Story Written by Jason Starr, Williston Observer

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