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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Sweeping Wilderness Bill Divides Environmental Community

Absaroka Range
Courtesy Rick and Susie Graetz
Absaroka Range

After languishing for over two decades in the U.S. House, a sweeping wilderness bill now gets its first shot in the Senate.

Steve Kelly is with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

“The main obstacle for years was Senator Max Baucus. Now he’s in China doing trade deals, so now we don’t have that to overcome.”

The Alliance has been one of the most vocal advocates of a proposal called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, or NREPA.

Kelly says it would give permanent wilderness protection to 23-million acres of roadless land in Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Montana.

“It would protect all the roadless areas and identify and protect corridors that connect big areas around Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, the Bob Marshall and Frank Church wilderness areas. It’s based on a scientific approach versus a state-by-state political approach.”

Montana Wood Products Association executive director Julia Altemus disagrees.

“You can develop science to whatever level you want to support your position. I’ve not seen their science – and science changes. This bill has not changed. It’s the same bill pretty much that was introduced 24 years ago (in the U.S. House). If you want to introduce a wilderness bill, let’s roll up our sleeves and come to the table with a broad group of stakeholders that are impacted by these decisions and then decide where and what’s appropriate.”

The Wood Products Association has opposed NREPA from the beginning.

Altemus describes it as a non-starter.

“It’s not collaboratively driven. It doesn’t come from the ground up. It’s coming from a couple of environmental groups that feel this is their best way of addressing connectivity across the West which we would disagree with.”

But the Alliance's Steve Kelly says those collaborative approaches to wilderness come with built-in pitfalls such as logging mandates that are not found in NREPA:

“There’s no real quid pro quo here. You know, everybody doesn’t get to divvy up a piece of the pie and accept that there’s going to be less wilderness. (NREPA) protects what’s left which is a fragment of what we had once anyway. If you look at a map it’s impressive how much we’ve developed and how little wilderness there really is left.”

Despite its emphasis on wide-scale wilderness designation and corridor preservation, NREPA does not have universal backing among environmentalists:

Natalie Dawson is director of the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana.

“Environmentalists fall within their own spectrum of being environmentalists. They tend to fall in different places. Some people feel collaborative bills are a sellout, that they’re giving away too much of the pie. Other environmentalists feel like ‘if we don’t make compromises that nothing’s going to be done.”

Case in point – the Montana Wilderness Association.

It does not back NREPA.

MWA declined our invitation for a taped interview.

But in an emailed statement the group says it prefers locally developed, landscape-based wilderness proposals; projects such as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition.

Clearly, wilderness proposals are divisive, but the UM Wilderness Institute’s Natalie Dawson says that controversy is a relatively modern concept.

“Although people might not remember it, less than 50 years ago it wasn’t a partisan issue, it was bipartisan. The 1964 Wilderness Act passed with Democrat and Republican support almost unanimously. There was only one vote against it in the House of Representatives”

The Wilderness Act originally set aside 9 million acres across 13 states.

Dawson says the next largest wilderness acquisition was secured near the end of Jimmy Carter’s term in 1980. He signed a bill that turned about 104-million acres of Alaskan land into parks, preserves and national forests. About half of that was set aside as wilderness.

“It turned the national attention to this idea that the federal government is making these large land grabs. Then of course we got a conservative government in place after Carter’s administration left. Since 1980, in most states wilderness bills have stalled out. There hasn’t been a lot of wilderness designation since then.”

Dawson predicts any wilderness designation proposal, either large scale or landscape-based, probably won’t gain much traction in Congress anytime soon.

“Both involve land protection. Just to give you an idea, the climate in Congress right now is kind of the opposite. They’re talking about taking federal lands and putting them back in the hands of state and private interests. Any bill that’s talking about more public land for the public good will potentially be at a standstill for a while yet.”

Montana’s entire congressional delegation opposes the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

Steve Kelly of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies acknowledges that NREPA’s chances are slim. But he also points out they were always told the proposal would never even make it into the U.S. Senate for consideration, yet there it now is.

“This was always told to us to be an impossibility, so here we are with an impossibility. I wouldn’t count out our bill. I would never count out the Alliance.”

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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