Roadless rage 

Schweitzer calls Bush’s bluff

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer came out swinging this week in a strongly worded letter to President Bush, saying Bush’s recently issued roadless rule is “passing the buck” by “shifting responsibility for management of the nation’s roadless areas to the states.” As the governor said at his Tuesday news conference, if Bush wants Montana to do this work, he had better pony up sufficient federal resources, in terms of both funding and personnel, to analyze Montana’s 6.4 million acres of roadless federal lands.

A little background might prove useful to those unfamiliar with the long debate over roadless lands. Back in the waning days of the Clinton presidency, a serious effort to protect the country’s dwindling roadless lands was proposed. As Schweitzer noted in his history lesson to Bush: “Montana went through an exhaustive public process conducted by the Forest Service. During that time, a record 1.6 million Americans participated in a nationwide 15-month effort involving 600 hearings and public meetings. In Montana alone, thousands of citizens commented at one of the 31 public hearings held in both large and small communities. Of the Montana respondents, 78 percent urged the Forest Service to manage these areas under a strong and enduring conservation policy.”

Despite the obvious and overwhelming desires expressed by citizens to protect these lands for future generations, Bush moved quickly to abort the Clinton roadless rule in his first weeks in office. When a Wyoming federal judge later ruled against the Clinton roadless plan, Bush jumped on the opportunity to issue his own roadless rule.

Like virtually everything coming from this administration, the labels they stick on their programs are the antithesis of what they actually do. Thus, the Bush roadless rule claimed it was going to “conserve” roadless lands, but the truth is something entirely different. Had Bush truly wanted to conserve roadless lands, he could have simply tweaked the existing protections—or even better, waited until the legal process had played out, since the Wyoming judge’s ruling is still on appeal.

Instead—and just as Schweitzer claimed—the Bush administration tossed the political hot potato right into the lap of the states, giving governors 18 months to analyze the lands and then “petition” the administration. Bush offered not one cent to help the governors determine which lands should remain roadless. But as Schweitzer mentioned, even if the governors should marshal the resources to undertake the task, “The final rule stipulates that USDA retains final authority over any state roadless rule petition, providing no assurances that state efforts and investments would bear fruit. In other words, Washington has the final say, not Montanans.”

Now, someone who has grown cynical over the Bush administration’s tactics and policies might just say that the whole charade is intended for only one purpose—to throw Western states, where most of the nation’s remaining roadless lands are located, into bitter and divisive debate over the future of these national assets just in time for next year’s elections.

Schweitzer, however, is less cynical and more analytical. He notes correctly that “The Forest Service has been trying to resolve this issue for upwards of 30 years with little or no success. With each succeeding plan, the issues have become more contentious and irreconcilable. Now, your administration, without the benefit of public hearings, has issued a final rule that asks the states to shoulder this burden both administratively and financially.”

In that regard, as the governor wrote: “The Forest Service employs about 2,375 people in Montana, including foresters, biologists, hydrologists, geologists, soil scientists, ecologists, entomologists, range scientists, landscape architects, and public affairs specialists. The Forest Service budget in the state exceeds $47 million.” The reason Schweitzer knows these numbers is that he requested them after receiving the roadless mandate from Washington and wanted to make his point that “The State of Montana, on the other hand, has neither the budgetary nor the personnel resources available to take the necessary in-depth look at its 6,397,000 acres of roadless areas.”

Having already discussed the issue with Montana’s timber interests, the governor surmised: “With proper management, currently roaded forest lands can supply the logs necessary to keep Montana’s mills running.” Meanwhile, Schweitzer noted: “The Forest Service in Montana reports a $588 million backlog of existing forest roads in disrepair. The federal government has not been budgeting enough to maintain current roads, and the dollars for this maintenance and other management are being cut further with each new budget proposal.”

Schweitzer then suggested that “Federal dollars should be made available to fund forest management, forest and stream restoration, existing trail and road maintenance, and fuel reduction,” adding that “these expenditures would have immense potential for jobs in rural communities across our state.”

While promising to meet with citizens in affected counties across the state and give the feds “some input,” Schweitzer wrote that it is the Forest Service which “has the personnel, expertise, site-specific information, and capability best suited to conduct a detailed analysis of each roadless area in an open, public process,” concluding that through such an effort, “perhaps an adequate review of lands coupled with meaningful public input could be accomplished.”

Calling Bush’s bluff on the phony roadless rule was a bold move. We should be overjoyed that Gov. Schweitzer has taken a pragmatic approach to the issue and reasserted Montanans’ desire to protect these valuable assets. But given the Bush administration’s track record, Schweitzer’s hope for “meaningful public input” or an “open, public process” sounds like a long shot.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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