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Can forest restoration become Montana’s newest industry?

Montana is at once both pristine and damaged. The largest wilderness complex in the lower 48—the Frank Church River of No Return/Selway Bitterroot—lies less than a day’s drive from the nation’s largest Superfund clean-up site.

Montana’s economy is also as damaged as its environment. Traditional industries—logging, mining—have been part of Montana’s economy since before statehood, but have been in decline for a decade or more.

When Judy Martz took over the reins of government she delighted some and dismayed others by appearing with the representatives of Montana’s old-guard industries—industries that appear to have little or no future here. Some Montanans complained that Martz’s decision to identify with the state’s extractive industries represented a move back, and boded ill for the state’s economy, already at the bottom of the national barrel.

Is there a way to a brighter economic future for a state lacking a metropolis and cheap, efficient transportation, and now also saddled with skyrocketing energy costs that threaten the few industries that still exist?

Yes, no and maybe.

Environmentalists, long the favorite whipping boy for traditional industries, believe they may have an answer that would at least boost a sagging economy, if not save it outright. But not all environmentalists agree.

With the state a virtual national park for tourists from the other 49 states, there may be a future in restoring the land damaged from a century of mining and logging. Finding the money to clean up old hazards like mine waste, or to replant clearcut scars, is probably not the biggest hurdle in cleaning up the environment, however. Changing the political climate, and the long and dearly held beliefs about the value of work, poses more of a barrier to growing Montana’s economy through public land restoration.

Westerners, says the Clark Fork Coalition’s staff attorney Matt Clifford, want to preserve the myth that they’re making valuable products from the tough work of harvesting raw materials without any federal tax subsidies. Logging has been a subsidized business in this part of the country, and if restoration ever plays a major role in the state’s economy it, too, will have to be subsidized. “But if we’re going to subsidize stuff,” he says, “let’s get something besides clearcuts and not do damage.”

Taking subsidies for harvesting wood—a tangible consumer good—may not be as politically acceptable as taking subsidies for something as intangible as, say, ridding the forest of invasive weeds, valuable though that work may be.

“It’s a more obvious subsidy,” he says of restoration work. “Psychically people would have to adjust to it. I think it’s absolutely feasible. It’s just a matter of political will.”

“I think if we could find the political will, we could find the financial way,” says Jennifer Ferenstein. Ferenstein, who sits on the national board of directors for the Sierra Club, says shifting the economic model from extractive industries to restoration work is difficult. But considering the fact that Montana abounds in workers who prefer laboring outdoors, land restoration could be “a perfect fit.”

She suggests pilot programs be launched to accomplish more than one restoration goal —rehabbing closed roads and improving habitat for threatened or endangered species, for instance.

Ferenstein traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to meet with Sen. Max Baucus, who is interested in the idea of restoration work as a viable industry.

Ryan Shaffer, with the eco-defense program of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says whether Montana can build an economy on forest and land restoration is a “huge question that nobody has the answer to. It really cannot be answered with a yes or no. We do, however, know that exploitative, resource-degrading industries have not helped to grow or improve Montana’s economic situation in the past. Why does anyone believe that they will work tomorrow? Clearly, something more creative than the legislation that has been introduced in this session would seem appropriate in light of historic lessons.”

Even if land restoration emerged as a powerful player in Montana’s economy, there could well be unfortunate side effects, such as an increase in second homes for the well-heeled, and more local people working two and three jobs just to keep up with exploding land values.

Jim Olsen, president of Friends of the Bitterroot, is skeptical that subsidized restoration will ever be a viable part of the Montana economy. “Making an economy out of it? You want my opinion? Forget it,” he says. “It requires a tax subsidy and that’s the reason the timber industry isn’t working. I think trying to make an economy out of restoration depends on government handouts, just like the traditional timber industry depended on government handouts.”

Besides, Olsen adds, there’s plenty of subsidized restoration work that goes on already in Montana. There’s probably more money in restoring mine sites than there is in the minerals mined, he says. “You can’t process 40 tons of rock to make $200 in gold, restore the environment and make a profit,” Olsen observes, adding that the restoration part of mining is where the taxpayers come in with their subsidies.

But Olsen does point out that there are successful restoration companies—small ones like Bitterroot Restoration in Corvallis, and the very large ones, like Raytheon, the giant defense contractor that has made money cleaning up “the military’s dirty old problems” like nuclear test sites.

Regardless of land restoration’s eventual role in the state economy, it’s a public discussion worth having, says Ferenstein. “I think that would be a much better discussion to have than a joint resolution opposing the roadless initiative.

“There’s a lot of things to restore,” she says. “We do pay our taxes. We should be getting something back.”

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