Errand in the Wilderness 

Clinton’s initiative is a 40-million-acre opportunity

Rumor has it that President Clinton has designated 40 million acres of new wilderness in the West. Let me inform you with regret that he has done nothing of the kind. The president’s much-ballyhooed announcement has created only an opportunity to change the way we manage publicly owned roadless areas from the Appalachians to the Cascades. An opportunity. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Nothing more means that there is no guaranteed outcome to the process. Whether you believe our roadless areas should be managed to protect wildlife or provide off-road vehicle race tracks, you have an opportunity to shape future management. Join the fray.

Nothing less means that this is an historic opportunity for Montanans to impact roadless area management in this state. See “nothing more” above.

A little background on how we got where we are:

• In January 1998, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it wanted public input on the way the agency manages its 380,000-mile road system and almost simultaneously that it wanted public input on a proposal to initiate an 18-month moratorium on road-building in roadless areas (the moratorium was implemented in January 1999 as proposed).

• The agency took public comment on the two proposals from approximately 80,000 Americans. Many focused less on roads than on the need for protection of roadless areas. Montana contributed the third most comments of any state, comments ranging from the dogmatic to the thoughtful. A sample comment from Helena: “In roadless areas I have seen wolverine, bear, elk, and other animals which I have not seen elsewhere. It is obvious that the scientific conclusions concerning the wildlife value of roadless lands are accurate.” The Forest Service will propose new policies for management of its road system in the next month.

• On Oct. 13, 1999, President Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to develop a proposal to provide “appropriate long-term protection” for roadless areas. A week later, as directed, the Forest Service asked for public comments on a proposal to implement the President’s directive in two steps.

In step one, the agency would make a decision in the next year regarding the extent to which building new roads into roadless areas is appropriate. In step two, the Forest Service would devise “national direction for managing inventoried roadless areas, and for determining whether and to what extent similar protections should be extended to [previously] uninventoried roadless areas.” The “direction” set would provide guidelines for evaluating appropriate management in roadless areas, but would leave on-the-ground decisions to individual forests through their public forest planning process.

In the next few months, based on public input and science, the Forest Service will construct alternative management proposals, run them through environmental analysis and public review again, then make some decisions next fall. Until the process is completed, we don’t really know what a new roadless area management policy might ultimately look like—it might be anything from today’s policy of log-and-drive-off-road-vehicles-at-will, to protecting all roadless areas from new roads, commercial logging, and the use of off-road vehicles.

Some people are attacking the proposal on the grounds that the result is predetermined. No. Here was the direction President Clinton gave to the Forest Service: “The public, and all interested parties, should have the opportunity to review and comment on the proposed regulations. In the final regulations, the nature and degree of protections afforded should reflect the best available science and a careful consideration of the full range of ecological, economic, and social values inherent in these lands.”

In my view, such final regulations would protect Montana’s roadless backcountry from roading, commercial timber harvest and the use of off-road vehicles. There are 31,000 miles of roads in Montana national forests—but only 18,000 miles of trails. When do we say enough is enough? When do we acknowledge that there are places I just shouldn’t be able to drive my pickup, nor a specialty all-terrain vehicle that costs more than my truck, carries weed seeds more effectively, and has the same negative impacts on wildlife and water quality?

Our roadless backcountry is Montana’s soul, and we ought to protect it for wildlife and traditional, nonmotorized recreation. Since President Clinton hasn’t, in fact, created any more wilderness, we must shape this proposal to fit Montana.

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