Five panelists, rather than six, led a discussion on President Bill Clinton’s proposed Roadless Initiative before a packed house at Hamilton High School last Thursday.
Three proponents of the proposal debated two opponents in a cordial debate that stretched out before the end of the evening to include questions from some of the 120 people who attended.
Missing from the panel was Cary Hegreberg, director of the Montana Wood Products Association, who had been invited but did not attend. One panelist, wilderness outfitter Howie Wolke said he regretted Hegreberg’s non-appearance, adding he hoped Hegreberg or some other representative of the timber industry would participate in the second forum, scheduled for St. Joseph School’s gymnasium in Missoula on March 29.
Joining Wolke as a proponent of the measure were Jim Olson, president of Friends of the Bitterroot, and UM economics professor Tom Power. Speaking as opponents were Penny Gaddy-Rhodes, president of the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club and Ron Wells, a Hamilton-based ORV outfitter.
While all agreed the roadless areas should remain roadless, they disagreed on what the level of use should be within those areas. Olson, Wolke and Power opted for restriction of mechanized uses and protection of the areas under wilderness guidelines. Gaddy-Rhodes and Wells believe the areas can support ORV/snowmobile usage on an established trail system.
Although they held opposing points of view on that issue, the panel agreed on most of the points raised, including protection of the Western way of life, air and water quality, and consideration of wildlife.
Open animosity, which has marked many of these forums in the past, was noticeably absent. Olson accepted an invitation from Gaddy-Rhodes to go on a snowmobile trip with her and at one point, Wolke, laughing, exclaimed, “I like you, Penny. I just don’t agree with you.”
Wolke and Wells, who both make their living as guides, also agreed more than they disagreed. Wells noted the American population is aging and said his type of service is often the only way for many people to have a forest experience. Wolke agreed, but said he believes there are enough acres of roaded national forest to allow that now. He opted for wilderness designation, saying, “We need to save what we’ve got left for the silences.”
While agreeing that snowmobiles are loud and produce emissions, Gaddy-Rhodes said the industry is pushing hard to reduce those problems. “Every area we snowmobile here in the Bitterroot National Forest is marked to possibly eliminate our sport,” she said. “We’re not willing to give those up.”
At the conclusion of the question/answer period, all five panelists sad they were pleased they had participated.
“I caught a lot of flak from some people for being here,” Gaddy-Rhodes said. “But I’m really glad I came. We have to open this dialogue. We have to sit down together and find areas where we can agree.”