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.
But small-town politics have also enabled something of a breakthrough, often referred to as “place-based” land use processes. Gradually over the past two decades, reasonable people on both sides have recognized that it might be better to work together on solutions that everyone can live with, rather than fight tooth-and-nail for their ideal outcome. They’ve developed carefully structured processes by which people on all sides of the debate can meet and negotiate for what’s really critical to them, rather than shout at each other in the service of an absolutist agenda. When you do that, you can start to bring politicians of both parties along. And sometimes, you can then actually get something done.