Green Mountain Club Director Ben Rose talks the walk
Ben Rose has hiked every inch of the 270-mile “footpath in the wilderness” known as the Long Trail. But ask him for his favorite section and you’re likely to see some fancy footwork. “I don’t do that,” he says, backing away from the question. “I don’t have one favorite spot — not that I would divulge.”
As the executive director of the Green Mountain Club, Rose is, not surprisingly, unwilling to play favorites or risk offending local club sections. But more to the point, the Yale grad and former state representative is far too savvy to take the bait. Just a year after taking the helm of the GMC, it’s clear the venerable Vermont hiking organization made a well-considered decision selecting this Long Island native to lead them into the 21st century.
“Like so many Vermonters, Ben Rose is a transplant who has grown well on Green Mountain soil,” wrote GMC President Rolf Anderson in 1998, noting that Rose came to Vermont at age 14. But in fact, by the time the notoriously energetic Rose made the length of the state on his bike. It was he who convinced his family the Green Mountain State ought to be a landing pad for their urban flight.
Attending Champlain Valley Union High School, where he was class valedictorian, Rose became friends with a “geographic dreamer” named Steve Bushey. “I was the tag-along and I learned a lot about Vermont’s wilderness through my friendship with Steve,” the 40-year-old Rose says of those early adventures. It was an alliance that would eventually lead Rose to hike, bike and ski the length of the state.
Under Bushey’s tutelage, Rose’s appreciation for Vermont’s landscape began to take shape. “What makes Vermont really unique is not the size of the mountains, but the sense of harmony in the landscape,” he offers from a corner office with a sublime view of the Green Mountains in Waterbury Center. “It’s both the unbroken ridgeline and the farmland; we’re half of that picture.”
When the Long Trail was founded as the nation’s first long-distance hiking trail in 1910, the state was dominated by farms and lumber mills. The mountains were dark, brooding impediments to progress. The GMC was founded with the mission of “making the mountains of Vermont play a larger part in the life of the people.”
Today, that picture has changed dramatically. More than 200,000 hikers hit Vermont’s trails every year, and the Long Trail has become one of the state’s most valued natural resources. “As population pressure builds in and around New England, having a permanent footpath along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains becomes increasingly precious,” argues Rose, an ardent environmentalist during his legislative years, from 1994 to 1998.
But just as Vermont has changed over time, so has the role of the GMC. From a decentralized club of avid hikers mostly interested in walking and working on the trail, it’s grown into an 8000-member organization with a $1.1 million budget and seasonal staff exceeding 40 workers. Although the mission hasn’t changed, conservation and education programming have gained equal footing.
“In 1986, the club realized — and it was sort of a sad decision — that if we wanted to have a Long Trail in 100 years, we had to go out and practically buy the thing,” Rose reflects. That realization led to the creation of the Long Trail Protection Program to purchase land and development rights around the trail. Thus far, $6.4 million has been spent — half from state coffers, half from GMC supporters — to protect 17,600 backcountry acres.
“There’s 23 parcels left before we reach the day when no one can close down the Long Trail,” says Rose, a goal he hopes to realize in time for the club’s centennial anniversary in 2010. Closer to home, the club’s currently negotiating for 60 acres adjoining its headquarters to create “a portal” to the backcountry and provide much needed housing and elbow room at the club’s headquarters on Route 100.
By the time Rose took over from Dennis Shaffer, the man who had shepherded the club through much of its growth, he had become “uniquely suited” to lead a modern GMC, says Anderson. In addition to an Ivy League pedigree and the fact that he was married to Lori Fisher — the executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee — Rose had acquired the distinction of being one of the co-founders of the Catamount Trail. The end-to-end cross-country ski trail was modeled after the Long Trail.
Rose claims that “dumb luck” and his friendship with Bushey — rather than dramatic decisions — have shaped his career path. But Bushey, now a respected cartographer in Stowe, remembers the decision to attempt to cross-country ski Vermont a little differently.
“In 1982, Ben, Paul [Janis] and I hiked to the top of Mt. Hunger with a couple of bottles of wine and I blurted out, ‘Let’s ski the length of Vermont next year,’ and Ben and Paul heartily agreed,” Bushey recalls. “So we held our first meeting on the top of Mt. Hunger in a rain storm fired by a couple of bottles of $4 wine — and that was good wine back then.”
As the GMC matures, Rose’s Catamount Trail adventure — as well as the fact that he end-to-ended the LT in 1982 — serves him well with the old-timers that still see the organization as essentially a hiking club. “We felt he was one of us, but at the same time he could lead us,” says Anderson, who comes from the trail-worker tradition.
In the legislature, where Rose represented Williston for two terms before moving into his “dream job” at the GMC, the House Democrat and former garbage guru for the Central Vermont Solid Waste District established a sterling record as an environmental champion and consensus builder, says Mary Sullivan, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Even in an environment known for strong opinions, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the dome taking pot shots at Rose. “You’d find people who disagreed with him and people who disapproved of his legislation, but not people who disliked him,” says Michael Flaherty, a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat.
While the GMC was attracted to Rose’s political skills, and the value of his connections, they also need Rose to display the stamina and strength of will he developed as a long-distance athlete. After all, there are those parcels still to be conserved, and existing conservation easements are only as strong as the ability of the organization to defend them, Anderson points out.
Wherever the threats may come from — and Rose and Anderson decline to be specific — would-be violators should remember that the GMC’s executive director may be diplomatic, but he was also hardened in the garbage world. “I retired from solid waste with a legal record of 8 wins, 2 loses and 3 ties in court,” Rose says with pride. “It was great training.”