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Yet for all their quiet success, the GBSG still faces its greatest challenge: getting the Great Burn designated as wilderness. It's what the group set out to do from day one. And after four decades of fieldwork and lobbying, it's still just beyond the horizon.
Fight for big 'W'
Harris can pinpoint the GBSG's greatest setback in seconds. "President Reagan's pocket veto (of a wilderness designation) in 1988 was devastating," he says. "We were one signature away. All he had to do was sign the thing. And it would have been a shitty bill. They cut 10,000 acres off at the last minute for Champion International...But looking back, hell, I don't care if it's shitty or not. It would have been 80,000 acres instead of zero on the Montana side. It took me a year to recover. And that's when we started to wake up and realize we can't rely on the legislative process. We ultimately have to run that gamut, but it's something we can't influence. What we can influence is bringing together a group of people that might love a place and slowly and quietly introduce them to the Great Burn."
On both the Idaho and Montana sides, the Forest Service has recognized the Burn's potential as protected wilderness since the 1980s. The Lolo National Forest has even taken to managing the proposed wilderness area as designated wilderness—a directive passed down from its regional administration. But the situation on the Idaho side remains uncertain.
Recently, the congressional delegations of Montana and Idaho have produced their first wilderness bills in more than 20 years. Sen. Mike Crapo's bill establishing the 517,000-acre Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness in southern Idaho passed Congress in 2009. But pro-wilderness advocates have loudly criticized wilderness attempts by Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Jon Tester in other areas of Idaho and Montana, respectively.
Wilderness Watch's George Nickas says that's largely due to the fact that both bills contained "really crummy provisions" like logging mandates and public forestland "giveaways."
"You clean up the bills and you push a decent bill, and Simpson would have had a wilderness bill by now," Nickas says. "I think Tester's forest jobs bill would be in the same boat."
Other congressmen—Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sen. Max Baucus in Montana, and Sen. James Risch and Rep. Raul Labrador in Idaho—have either ignored or spoken out against setting aside more wilderness.
Crapo says the nature of wilderness designation has been altered in the last 20 years: "Wilderness legislation has become very divisive and the battle over whether to declare wilderness at the congressional level is very engaged. National stakeholder groups these days, from whichever perspective they come, are very, very well organized and capable of stopping legislation." That in turn puts pressure on local groups to craft strong, cohesive proposals.
Crapo points to his own Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness bill to illustrate the importance of local collaborative efforts. Crapo and others struggled for eight years to identify and bring to the table every local stakeholder possible, he says, from mining and timber interests to the Shoshone Paiute Tribe and the U.S. Air Force. "That does not mean every individual person who wants to be in the collaborative process has to be a part of it," he says. "But every interest or every stakeholder interest needs to be represented."
Crapo convened the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in 2008 with that goal. The Great Burn Study Group is one of the 28 organizations involved with the collaborative.
As for the Montana side of the Burn, Harris unflinchingly declares "there's no hope...Sen. Tester's not going to touch this. He's in an election...asking him to push a legislative campaign for the Great Burn isn't even in the cards. We wouldn't ask it."
Many conservationists say that a wilderness designation for the Burn would experience little opposition except from select motorized user groups.
"I think it was a great tragedy that Sen. Tester didn't introduce a Great Burn Wilderness bill instead of the bill he introduced," Nickas says, referring to Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. "I don't know where the reason for that lies...but he could have gotten the wilderness ball rolling in Montana by pursuing something like the Great Burn."
Tester says the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act didn't include wilderness designation for the Great Burn primarily because no one approached him with a proposal. His bill drew from the efforts of three independent, collaborative groups whose voices included those of the timber industry, the conservation community and motorized recreation interests, he says. They crafted concrete proposals and presented them to Tester shortly after he entered office. "That hasn't happened with the Great Burn," he says, "and that's really the difference." Until someone comes to him with a similar proposal for the Great Burn, he won't act: "It's gotta be a ground-up collaboration."