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Closing Range

When Wildernists Fight, Montana Wins

Don’t be fooled, both camps want the same result

Bill Schneider’s last column lives up to his “Wild Bill” marquee, with his wish for environmental groups to stop bickering and get Congress to pass a “wild bill” for Montana.

Let ‘em bicker.

First, the original Wilderness Act, signed by President Johnson in 1964, designated 9.1 million acres of big-W wilderness up front. Section 3(B) of the Act further mandated that all “primitive areas” under control of federal agencies would be reviewed for wilderness “suitability or nonsuitability” by 1974, then duly designated or released by Congress.

So here we are, nearly 40 years later, with wilderness warriors supposedly split into two camps: Totalitarians, such as Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, support ridiculous legislation such as the Earth-First-inspired Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). Incrementalists, such as Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) and the National Wildlife Federation, are proposing “more moderate” ideas such as the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership.

Don’t be fooled.

Both camps want the same end result. As MWA’s “campaigns” Web page states, MWA “works to designate and defend Wilderness as well as preserve potential Wilderness land until it, too, can be designated as Wilderness.”

Put another way, both totalitarians and incrementalists litigate, lobby, sue, what-have-you in order to block any activity on any acre of “roadless” and not-so-roadless land that might possibly become big-W Wilderness – anything to drag things out until the “right” (or wrong) Congress and President get elected.

The totalitarian NREPA is so massive and so extreme, it is beneath contempt.

As for the incrementalist Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership (BDP), is it truly a viable, workable alternative? Cuss, no.

The BDP came about after the U.S. Forest Service released a terrible new plan for the B-D National Forest. In essence, the USFS rolled over like a budget-busted, litigation-kicked puppy asking to be shot. Even its newly revised plan for the 3.3 million-acre forest (329,000 acres of recommended wilderness, up from 174,000, and only 299,000 acres of “suitable” timber, down from 676,000) starves the mills to death, thereby giving the forest completely over to wildfire.

Public outrage spurred former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to hold a December 2005 field hearing in Missoula. Roughly 75 percent of a packed house was multiple-use supporters; timber, mechanized recreationists, local government officials and others who came from all over Western Montana despite a howling blizzard. The message: Get serious about a workable plan.

Trouble was, the lousy weather had desperate Sun Mountain mill owner Sherm Anderson, MWA’s John Gatchell, and Jack-Abramoff-tainted Senator Burns sharing a car out of Missoula after the meeting. From that ride came the “Partnership,” announced in summer 2006.

The Partnership draft Title II adds 573,000 acres in 16 new wildernesses upon implementation in addition to 11,600 acres of mountain bike/snowmobile ground that is otherwise wilderness. In return, the timber beasts get 713,000 acres of “suitable” ground in the form of 7,000 acres per year of “stewardship” ground to work on, 70,000 acres total, only 2.1 percent of the forest.

However, the draft specifies the forest be managed “in accordance with all existing laws and regulations,” meaning litigation can still stop the show.

What’s the real hook? According to BDP supporters Bruce Farling and Tom France, “the stewardship elements of the bill will last only 15 years, about the life of the next forest plan. The wilderness will be permanent.”

In short, there are no conditions on the wilderness. Radicals remain free to sue. If the timber side of the bargain gets monkey-wrenched in court, the wilderness happens anyway, freeing the “moderate” wilderness advocates to target their political efforts elsewhere.

No matter what, the public so far shut out of the “partnership” will be stuck dealing with what happens after. Mills or no mills, trees will still grow and die, fires will still burn, right?

I have a better deal. The BDP, or any other “partnership” agreement, must make wilderness designation absolutely conditional on successful, litigation-free implementation of the rest of the program. Only if in 10 years the mills are prosperous, the land in better shape, the fire problem under control and all, repeat all, multiple-user groups satisfied with the agreement results, then, and only then, should wilderness designation go forward.

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