Dispatch July 2009

The Wilderness Wars

East Coast liberals want to protect public lands—but they don’t understand the West. Now a new approach to land management is emerging, and a new spirit of compromise is possible.

When the New York Times recently editorialized in favor of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a lot of us here in the Northern Rockies rolled our eyes. The bill, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), would designate more than 20 million acres of the Mountain West as wilderness, but it has almost no chance of passing, mainly because of intense local opposition. And if you support NREPA, (as plenty of people in the West actually do) the Times editorial had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing one of the chief local arguments against the legislation: It’s the brainchild of high-minded liberals from New York who want to tell Westerners how to manage their backyards.

If the Times were less tone-deaf on Western issues, it would also have recognized that it was editorializing about the wrong bill. For anyone interested in the wilderness policy debate, the relevant piece of recently introduced legislation is not NREPA, but rather Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The Tester bill’s designation of about 680,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana hardly shows the sweeping commitment to conservation embodied in NREPA, and many of Tester’s fellow Democrats are not too impressed. But it actually has a chance of becoming law – and represents an increasingly influential approach to conservation politics.

NREPA seems pretty reasonable on its face, since the lands in question are undeveloped roadless areas that are already owned by the federal government. But the reality on the ground in much of the Mountain West is that discussion of many land-use issues has devolved into a bitter standoff, and new wildnerness designations in particular are fiercely opposed in many quarters. The timber industry is on its knees, and the remaining loggers and sawmill operators are not simply crawling away quietly. They are livid that almost any timber-cutting on public lands is challenged in court – often successfully ­– by environmental groups. They don’t want more wilderness areas, they want fewer.

Likewise, county commissioners fear that new wilderness will reduce the local tax base. Ranchers worry that wolves and grizzly bears will eat their livestock, and that they might lose the right to graze their cattle on some public lands.  ATV enthusiasts and snowmobilers don’t want restrictions on where they can ride.

Mountain bikers don’t support new wilderness designations, because bikes are barred from wilderness areas. And even many ecologists agree that active forest management is necessary in many places due to the increase in fires and the increase in tree-killing bug infestations (likely a consequence of global warming, but that’s another story).

On the other side are traditional environmentalists. They argue, with some justification, that what’s at issue are the last scraps of Western wilderness, and that it’s nothing less than a betrayal of future generations to sacrifice them for short-term economic gain. Once the old-growth trees and the extensive wildlife habitat they provide are gone, they’re gone forever. And why should a handful of loggers and ranchers be allowed to dictate policy on millions of acres of land which they don’t own but rather are allowed to use courtesy of all Americans?

Yet the old-school greens too often refuse to recognize even legitimate objections to their agenda. Since they have little political support, they rely on court actions – and especially suing the federal agencies – as their primary strategy. This does not exactly help them in the court of public opinion.

What makes these battles especially intractable – and unpleasant – is their personal nature; these are mostly small communities in the rural West, and you see your opponents (and your elected representative) not just in the courthouse but in the coffee shops. People’s livelihoods are at stake, in places where there are not a whole lot of ways to make a living.

Presented by

Jonathan Weber is publisher of NewWest.Net, an online magazine about the Rocky Mountain West.

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