Green Group Feud, Afterthoughts

By Beacon Staff

A few weeks ago, I lost a few friends in Wilderness movement when I wrote about a feud between green groups stifling efforts to protect roadless lands. The following week, I invited the executive directors of two of the opposing groups to write guest commentaries on how they think we should end the Wilderness drought in Montana.

After carefully reading the words of what I called “dueling greens,” reviewing all the comments, and having a few more chats with wilderness leaders, I have a few afterthoughts and possible solutions to the stalemate.

By the way, this issue is hardly restricted to Montana. Other states face the same dilemma, infighting among greens preventing progress and giving victories to the competition. Take last year’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), which was actually, sort of, considered a “Wilderness bill,” despite the title. It almost passed, but was bitterly opposed by a coalition of green groups who believed it gave away too much wild land to development and motorized recreation.

Anybody who reads the Wild Bill column knows I’m a strong supporter of designating our roadless lands as Wilderness, so you could say this is airing my dirty laundry, but the system by which we designate Wilderness is seriously broken. It won’t be fixed unless we get the problems out in the open.

First, if wilderness groups can’t find enough common ground to form a unified front in the battle for Wilderness, we should just give up and go to Plan B, to be explained later in this commentary. I still can’t imagine Congress passing a true Wilderness bill with a large percentage of wilderness advocates opposing it–or to be fine-line political, not supporting it.

Second, I probably shouldn’t call it a green group feud. It no longer seems like green vs. green; it’s more like green vs. brown, with supporters of the quid pro quo approach being brown and supporters of the save-what-we-have-left approach staying green.

Third, I had a lot of emails and calls, and the comment section was alive with pro-wilderness people who aren’t happy about the current approach and dismal record of Montana’s major brown group, Montana Wilderness Association (MWA). Witness the companion article, Memo to MWA, an internal letter from two former MWA council members.

I regret saying this because I have been a member most of my life and did a shift on the MWA Council, but we’ve lost the MWA of the past. The group has grown and radically changed–and not for the good.

Third, my “can’t we all get along” concept clearly isn’t going to work with the current cast of characters. So, what to do about it? Here are three “Plan Bs.” For Wilderness advocates, they should all fall into the same category, which is: We don’t have to like it or each other, but we have a job to do.

Plan B #1:The brownish green approach. The real hang up with the quid pro quo approach is trading roadless lands for “stewardship logging,” real estate development or motorized recreation or as it has been called, “wreckreation.” Take roadless land giveaways off the table and give those normally opposing Wilderness something else that doesn’t sacrifice roadless lands, something like power line corridors, pipelines, power plants, economic development funding, or water rights–anything with an acceptable environmental impact but would normally not garner support from green groups. It may leave a bad taste (i.e. Wilderness groups supporting power plants?) and if we need to call it the MEDA, as in the Montana Economic Development Act, so be it–as long as it has a solid Wilderness component and doesn’t sacrifice de facto wilderness like the 700,000 acres (much of it with interim protection) MWA proposes to give up to the timber industry in its now-infamous Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership or convert roadless land to motorhead parks and trophy homes like CIEDRA would have done. Be innovative in picking the trade offs. This could work.

Plan B #2: The pure piecemeal approach. “Pure” is the operative word. Take a high profile area that all Wilderness advocates can support but don’t load up the bill with giveaways. Make it a pure Wilderness bill, but for a small, popular area, as opposed to the massive Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which includes basically all roadless lands in the northern Rockies. A good candidate would be something called the Bob Marshall Completion Act, which designates the famed Rocky Mountain Front and smaller roadless tracts contiguous to the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas. I happen to know that both sides of this debate would support such a bill, so, alas, we have common ground. Together (for a change!), the two sides might be able to convince a member of our delegation to introduce it.

Plan B #3: The throwing in the towel approach. Assuming my first plans won’t fly and assuming the current broken system will do nothing but extend the Wilderness drought, which is a good bet, then what do we have left? No chance for designation of what we know as Wilderness? If this is where we end up, and it seems likely to me, our Wilderness leaders need to suck it up, give up on so-called “Big W” Wilderness and start over with a new, slightly less restrictive land designation that I’ve called Wilderness Lite. Basically, the new designation would allow all nonmotorized uses, including mountain biking, and probably be less restrictive in several areas such as wildlife management, fish stocking, outfitting, or firefighting, but still prohibit roads and motorized recreation.

So, we have some options, all of which I’m sure neither side of the debate likes, but hopefully, they can like one of them better than the status quo, which is nothing more than fueling the perfect storm for those who don’t want to see our roadless lands protected.

Footnote: For more on this general subject, go to A Natural Allies Chronology.