Whether new immigrants or life-long residents, the one thing Montanans all seem to agree on is that we ought to keep the state like it is. If it didn't necessitate change, we probably could have put that on our license plates next to the bison skull: "Keep it like it is."
And that's OK. We have a way of life in Montana that we treasure, and we rightly fear any change that threatens the things we value. We want to protect the generosity of spirit and friendliness that let us call this the last, best place, and we want our grandkids to be able to go hunting and fishing in the same spots we do today. Whether we're talking about our neighborhoods or our public lands, keep it like it is.
In fact, that's what I recently heard from an outfitter I ran into deep in the heart of the Great Burn, a proposed wilderness area just west of Missoula on the Montana-Idaho border. Discussing the uncertain future of the area, my friend allowed that he doesn't want heavy industry in the area, or ATVs running willy-nilly up the trails, but opposes wilderness designation of the Great Burn on the grounds that it would prohibit the use of chain saws and caches. Keep it like it is, he said, and things'll be fine.
And that's the cleverness behind a new legislative campaign by the Blue Ribbon Coalition. Two weeks ago, Blue Ribbon kicked off a campaign to legally reduce the protections afforded to existing wilderness areas (like the Bob Marshall or the Mission Mountains), and to prevent further wilderness designations. In place of wilderness, Blue Ribbon proposes a "backcountry" designation that would allow logging, mining, and off-road vehicles-or as they put it in their press release, "active resource management in wilderness areas."
Aimed right at the heart and mind of my outfitter friend, Blue Ribbon argues that this sort of management will keep Montana like it is. And, in truth, the Blue Ribbon proposal would basically codify in law the sort of intensive management most non-wilderness roadless areas currently enjoy.
As public land law stands today, wilderness areas that have been designated by Congress are administered by the Forest Service to protect native wildlife and vegetation and primitive recreation-this means no roads or industry. Roadless wildlands that have not yet been addressed by Congress-like the Great Burn, the Rocky Mountain Front, and the crest of the Sapphire Mountains-are generally administered by the Forest Service without particular regard for the wildlife that they safeguard, and with management that permits mining, logging, and off-road vehicle use.
Although there are occasional bright spots, the Forest Service record for protecting undesignated roadless areas is pretty dismal. Consider a recent proposal for logging in a roadless area on the flanks of the Beartooths. Consider mining claims on the Rocky Mountain Front. And consider: 50 all-terrain vehicles a day at once-serene lakes in the Great Burn; roads built into West Big Hole country which Congress voted to protect as wilderness in 1988 (President Reagan vetoed the bill); four roadless areas gone from the Flathead National Forest in the last 20 years; motorized vehicles permitted in more than half the state's unprotected wilderness. And on and on.
Timber sales, mining claims, and the ever-increasing range and rental of off-road vehicles are already eliminating the backcountry areas that Montanans love. When Blue Ribbon calls for mandating "traditional multiple-use activities" in the Great Burn, on the Rocky Mountain Front, and in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, it seems to ensure the continued abuse of our public lands and the public trust.
Blue Ribbon does want to keep Montana like it is. But it also wants to keep management like it is. Most of us would prefer to keep the country like it is.
Not surprisingly, the industries that benefit from current management of roadless areas fund and support Blue Ribbon, including (according to the Coalition itself) Suzuki, Bombardier Kawasaki, Plum Creek, Stoltze Land and Lumber, the Montana Mining Association, the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association, Stone Container, Louisiana Pacific, the InterMountain Forest Industries Association, Montana Snowmobile Association, the American Petroleum Institute and Exxon.
Blue Ribbon wants to turn our wildlands-and our existing wilderness-over to its funders. There may be a place on public lands for these industries, but it is not in our last roadless areas, nor in our designated wilderness.
Whether we hope to keep farmers on the land, guarantee living wages, or keep Missoula a first-rate place to live, protecting the things we value about Montana often requires action. In the case of our wildlands, we can welcome ATVs and the industry that will follow, or we can oil up our cross-cut saws and ask Congress to finally give us our wilderness. Sometimes we have to embrace a little change to keep Montana like it is.