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.

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.

Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League is perhaps the environmental poster child for this approach. Working in one of the reddest states in the country, Johnson has painstakingly built coalitions over the years that have ultimately resulted in broad-based support for new wilderness and other environmental measures.

When Congress passed an omnibus public lands bill back in March that included the first new wilderness area in Idaho in 29 years, its biggest champion was Senator Mike Crapo, a conservative Idaho Republican. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Johnson in celebrating both the painstaking collaborative process and the outcome. Another new wilderness in Idaho, the Boulder White Clouds, is likely to result from a similar process.

Montana’s environmental community is fractured, and lacks a go-to figure like Johnson to cajole everyone to the table. But place-based collaborative efforts in three different communities in the state have succeeded in generating compromises that most people can tolerate, and these efforts form the heart of Tester’s bill. Some roadless areas and potential wilderness areas are set aside for timber cutting, and are exempted from the normal Forest Service review. Other areas are opened up to vehicle use. Still others, including much of the most sensitive habitat, are designated as wilderness.

Many environmental groups, such as the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, consider these efforts a sell-out, dismissing the new wilderness areas as mere “rock-and-ice” that’s no good for other uses anyway. They are furious at organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and the Montana Wilderness Association for supporting the compromises. They’re now furious at Tester, too, noting, probably correctly, that it was environmentalists and not loggers who helped get him elected. The bill’s fate in Congress is by no means assured, partly because of opposition from the left.

Personally, I find Tester’s legislation a little light on wilderness protection and little heavy on job-preserving mechanisms that preserve very few jobs. Frankly, I’d probably vote for NREPA if I ever had the chance.

But I do respect the process that produced these compromises – highly time-consuming, good-faith efforts by many people over a long period of time. I’m hoping the final bill may yet tilt a little more toward my personal priorities, but that’s not really the point.

It’s easy to sit in New York and talk about what ought to be in places you’ve never seen. (I’ve done it myself). It’s also easy to argue, academically, that the lands in question belong to everyone, not just the people who happen to live there. (I’ve done that too). But you simply cannot legislate the fate of Western lands without involving Westerners. Coastal liberals need to understand that reality.