Wilderness Group Standoff Prevents Progress

By Beacon Staff

If you follow the Wilderness issue like I do, you know that Congress is currently considering the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which would designate as Wilderness basically all of the remaining roadless land in Idaho and Montana, and most of northwestern Wyoming as well as small tracts in Oregon and Washington.

That’s something a pro-Wilderness group could support, don’t you think?

The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club have supported NREPA, as did the Idaho Conservation League, the major pro-Wilderness group in the Gem State. But not the major nonprofit we depend on to protect wild land in Montana, the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), which not only won’t support NREPA, but opposes this bill.

When I started asking around about why MWA wouldn’t support a bill that protects all roadless lands in Montana, I found an embarrassing state of affairs where dissent and a nasty, back-biting power struggle have created such gridlock within the ranks of Wilderness advocates that I’m sad to say there’s little hope of ending twenty-five years of Wilderness drought in Montana.

I’ve talked to numerous key players in both the MWA and the Alliance for the Northern Rockies (AWR), the primary architect and flag-carrier for NREPA. I’ve decided not to put names in this column because so much was given to me in confidence, and besides, it probably wouldn’t add anything to this distressing story.

This column isn’t about a journalist trying to create bickering where there is none, like the media dreaming up a bitter feud between Barack and Hillary when none exist. This feud is real, perplexing and clearly counterproductive to attempts to protect roadless land.

At issue is a dramatic split in philosophy among the people who want more Wilderness. This disagreement goes back a couple of decades and has intensified to outright bitterness. Both groups believe they have the right approach and basically refuse to even talk about common ground – or to each other. Name-calling is omnipresent, and each side blames the other for lack of progress in preserving our roadless heritage.

And, of course, if you’re among those who never want to see another acre of Wilderness, rejoice. Your opposition is playing your game. This is your perfect storm.

Here’s the rub. The MWA worships the collaborative or quid pro quo approach where timber companies, ATVers, mountain bikers, backcountry horsemen and hikers sit down and hammer out a compromise deal. Politicians prefer this so-called “bottom up” approach because they can jump in a thorny issue like Wilderness designation without getting pricked.

In past Wild Bill columns, I’ve supported this something-for-something strategy, including MWA projects such as the Continental Divide Quiet Trails Proposal and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership (BDP).

The AWR has the “do the right thing,” ecological approach and opposes the quid pro quo strategy in general and the BDP in particular. The AWR wants to save what we have left, which has led to the repeated introduction of NREPA. Today’s version, H.R. 1975, carried by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, with 122 co-sponsors, including nine representatives from Colorado, Oregon and Washington, but none from Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, actually had a hearing on Oct. 18, the first for any version of this legislation. Nonetheless, most politicians in the New West continue to pan this “top down” approach i.e. letting some evil eastern liberal tell us what to do with “our land,” keeping in mind that only federal lands owned by all Americans qualify for inclusion into the National Wilderness Preservation System.

National greens like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League sent in lukewarm letters of support for the hearing record, but no national alerts or aggressive efforts to turn out a lot of support for the bill. And nothing but silence from the MWA.

Even with a fourth of the U.S. House of Representatives sponsoring NREPA, it has little chance of getting a House vote, and even if this happened, and even if the House passed the bill, which is unlikely but conceivable, it faces a lonely death in the Senate and certain veto in The White House.

I believe one reason for NREPA’s dim prospects, one of those unspoken “elephants in the room,” is that members of Congress see that even wilderness groups like the MWA don’t support protecting all our roadless lands.

Later this year, the MWA will likely convince the Montana delegation to take a chance on a quid pro quo wilderness bill based on the BDP. This bill will probably propose designating about 570,000 acres of new Wilderness in southwestern Montana, mostly high-elevation country with minimal timber-growing potential, in exchange for dedicating 730,000 acres to “low-impact” logging (i.e. no new permanent roads) including the sacrifice of 200,000 acres of low-elevation roadless land, much of it in the West Pioneer Mountains.

What goes around comes around. I can assure you that the AWR and other NREPA backers will passionately oppose legislation based on the BDP. That’s the level we’ve sunk to here in Montana – You oppose our bill; we’ll oppose your bill. I wonder how many members of each group realize how spiteful polarization among their leadership plays into the hands of those who hate Wilderness.

Call me an idealist, but it just seems like instead of beating themselves into submission, the leaders of our Wilderness organizations should shed past ill will, shelf their egos, sit down, decide on legislation that they can all support, and go for it. Defining a baseline for the Wilderness component of proposed legislation and having unified support among wilderness advocates for it seems like the first step. After that’s done, try to develop support, above the baseline, from the timber industry and other detractors, hopefully enough to convince at least one member of the Montana delegation to introduce a bill. And then end the Wilderness drought!

But I’m not going to try to hold my breath until this happens.

Footnote: If you want to read more about this subject go to NewWest.Net and search for the Natural Allies Chronology.