Second chance: NREPA offers new opportunity for Montana wilderness

Montanans watched in dismay earlier this year when Congress passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, granting wilderness designation to millions of acres of forests, rivers and canyonlands across the nation— but not one acre in the Big Sky State. Thanks to the reintroduction of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), Montanans now have another chance to permanently protect our most vital wildlands, waters and wildlife corridors.

Unlike bills that designate wilderness in a piecemeal forest-by-forest fashion, NREPA takes a broader view of the landscape of the Northern Rockies and is designed to link entire ecosystems together. As introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as HR980, NREPA would designate some 23 million acres of federal lands and waters as wilderness. Of that total, 3 million acres would be in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks, 7 million acres in Montana, 9.5 million in Idaho, 5 million in Wyoming, 750,000 in eastern Oregon and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington. The measure would also provide “wild and scenic” status for certain river corridors.

While NREPA confers wilderness status on all the lands designated by the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, a key provision of the bill would also create a pilot program to rehabilitate 6,000 miles of roads. Mike Garrity, the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, estimates the road-removal work would save money and create thousands of jobs.

“NREPA would save taxpayers $245 million over a 10-year period by managing the land as wilderness,” Garrity said, adding: “And more than 2,300 jobs would be created in the region through NREPA’s program to restore Northern Rockies habitats to their natural state.”

Plus, the measure only applies to federal lands—there are no private lands included and existing mining claims remain valid, as do grazing permits. 

So what’s not to like?  Well, according to arguments used by opponents such as Montana’s lone Rep. Denny Rehberg, the main problem is the measure is a “top-down approach” rather than a compromise reached by local grassroots organizations.

But singer-songwriter Carole King, who has tirelessly promoted NREPA since the measure was first introduced in Congress in 1993, disagrees with that characterization. 

“NREPA is the opposite of a top-down bill,” says King.  “It was drafted by local residents of the Northern Rockies bioregion, including wildlife biologists, economists, business owners and individuals who recognized the need for, and the benefits of, protecting the Northern Rockies ecosystem.”

One of those local residents is Montanan Brian Smith, co-founder and managing partner of the Blackfoot River Brewery in Helena, who will be going to Washington to testify in favor of the bill. 

“It’s time for the U.S. taxpayers to stop subsidizing the Forest Service in order to provide below cost timber to the wood products industry,” Smith says. “If I managed my business like the Forest Service manages timber sales, I would be bankrupt. NREPA will create high-paying reclamation jobs at a time when we need them most. The creation of these new jobs will help the Montana economy and my business. By supporting this visionary piece of legislation, our congressional representatives can vote for both jobs and the environment.”

Some also complain that the bill isn’t being sponsored by senators or congressman from the Northern Rockies, but by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who, like King, has been a perennial supporter of the measure. The primary co-sponsor is Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who was on the short list for consideration as Secretary of the Interior in the Obama administration. According to Maloney, keeping politics out of the equation may be a benefit. “NREPA would help protect those resources by drawing wilderness boundaries according to science, not politics, by protecting entire ecosystems,” says Maloney. “I’m proud to be sponsoring this legislation.”

Indeed, the Northern Rockies provide the source of clean water for millions of people on both sides of the continental divide. As the impacts of drought from global warming increase, protecting the headwaters of the mighty rivers that drain the crown of the continent from industrial activities makes sense. It’s a no-brainer that keeping water clean is a lot cheaper than paying to clean it up to drinking water standards—and there’s not much water on earth cleaner than that originating in the wilderness areas of the Northern Rockies.

Reinforcing the importance of clean water just this week, new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited Montana to announce some $3 million in federal Recovery Act funds for water conservation projects across the state. “Throughout this region we all know water is our most precious resource,” Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told reporters during Salazar’s visit.

Wilderness forests also play an important part in removing carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas, from the atmosphere. “NREPA would help combat global warming by protecting the carbon sink these forests provide,” says supporter Mike Garrity. “The Forest Service’s own studies show the more forests we protect the more carbon our National Forests will absorb.”

If we’ve learned one thing in the last year, it’s that times are changing faster than anyone thought possible. Many of the arguments used against NREPA in the past are no longer applicable in today’s world. The benefits of protecting forests, fisheries, watersheds and wildlife, however, are only becoming more important every day.

The hearing on NREPA, HR980, will take place May 5. Those wishing to submit testimony may do so until May 19 by e-mailing the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands at domenick.carroll@mail.house.gov.

As supporter Mike Garrity concludes: “NREPA is a Montana made bill, conceived and written by people here in the Northern Rockies. Most Americans and most of the people in Montana demonstrated that they support protecting all roadless lands when they commented on the roadless rule. NREPA permanently protects those lands by declaring them wilderness and now is the time to pass it.”  Garrity’s right—now is the time to pass NREPA.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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