Ochenski: Rotten to the core 

How the Montana cabal fuels resource policy

When the same administration that preemptively unleashes devastating military force on another nation “to make peace” says it wants the timber industry, without environmental or public review, “to restore forest health,” you’d best keep a close eye on what’s going down—because it’s most likely going to be the big, profitable trees. Make no mistake: National fire policy under Bush, Martz, and their cohorts is being driven by deception and politics, not science. Unfortunately, when future historians write the tale, Montanans are likely to be embarrassed by the roles our home-grown politicians played in this rotten-to-the-core affair.

The Bush administration has become adept at using deception and fear to accomplish its political goals. National forests, however, belong not to timber or oil companies, but to each and every American. The problem, at least according to the industry goons Bush appointed to his cabinet, is that pesky citizens sometimes want a say in forest management. If you believe the goons, this is causing unacceptable delays in “restoring forest health.”

Ironically, it was Democrat Gov. Ted Schwinden who proclaimed “The whole damn state is on fire!” during the Yellowstone fires in 1988. In spite of the fact that only a few buildings burned, the Republicans saw the opportunity to exploit terrifying forest conflagrations for political purposes—and they took it.

Montana’s Republican Congressman Ron Marlenee, a hard-bitten wilderness opponent, wasted no time in blaming what he hated: “I believe that the policies of wilderness lands, of ‘lock it up and let it burn,’ is, in fact, a policy of ruin and ashes.” He was joined on the anti-wilderness bandwagon by livestock auctioneer turned Senate candidate Conrad Burns, who exploited Yellowstone’s fires to convince President Reagan to veto legislation designating millions of acres of Montana wilderness.

Riding high on this “power,” Burns upset incumbent Senator John Melcher, and the political value of anti-fire rhetoric was off and running. Just so Montanans don’t forget, what we lost in the bargain that gave us Burns was the last Montana wilderness bill to pass both houses of Congress.

As drought deepened, fire raged across much of the West. In 2000, Montana was again visited by conflagration, this time in the Bitterroot Valley. Gov. Marc Racicot jumped on national television and viciously blamed President Clinton for the fires. Racicot had already signed on to the Bush campaign team, and leaped at the opportunity to employ extremely negative campaigning to boost his candidate’s chances.

Racicot’s rash and inflammatory statements were so out-of-line that the Missoulian editorialized against them, writing: “What will emerge, as time allows a more thoughtful analysis than Racicot’s finger-pointing, is that some of the affected area is heavily logged and some not, that some fires were caused by nature and others by human carelessness, that weather and wind and nearly a century (not seven years) of forest policy and the natural cycle of life are part of the formula for smoke and flames in the forest.”

The rest is history. Racicot, while still on the payroll as governor, headed to Florida to help Bush obfuscate ballot recounts. Despite losing the popular vote, Bush was then awarded the presidency by Supreme Court members appointed by his father. Judy Martz became governor, and wildfire, that handy excuse for political machination, grew in stature as those who employed it so disingenuously rose to positions of power.

Bush filled his cabinet with timber, mining, and oil industry goons, not least among them Helena mining attorney Rebecca Watson, who is now an undersecretary of agriculture in charge of minerals. Dale Bosworth, meanwhile, was plucked from the Missoula offices of the Forest Service to become its Chief. Racicot was rewarded in typical Republican fashion, raking in big bucks lobbying for a firm that represented such luminaries as Enron while simultaneously chairing the Republican National Committee.

Gov. Martz, the self-proclaimed “lapdog of industry,” stepped in to carry on the Racicot tradition of baselessly blaming environmentalists for the fires, even going so far as to equate them with terrorists for opposing Republican logging plans. As Chair of the Western Governors’ Association, Martz, abetted by Sen. Burns and Rep. Rehberg, continues to turn Montanans against each other while kow-towing to the timber industry.

Just last month, Martz was in D.C., posing with President Bush as he gleefully announced new regulations to allow unlimited 1,000-acre clearcuts without environmental review or the opportunity for administrative appeal. The clear intent was to portray the Western Governors’ Association as backing environmental and public exclusions. But that too is a deception, as pointed out by Oregon’s former governor John Kitzhaber.

“As one of the authors of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy, I feel compelled to correct the media reports that are providing the public with a faulty understanding of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act’s relationship to the WGA strategy,” wrote Kitzhaber in a letter to Congress only days before the Martz-Bush charade. “The intent of the strategy is to be as broad based and inclusive as possible in developing forest management projects…in an effort to reduce the polarization that has often surrounded forest management issues…I am very concerned that this legislation will be perceived by the public as a way to reduce or avoid legitimate public participation in and review of these important projects.”

There is little doubt that we can benefit from efforts to make areas surrounding forest communities and homes less fire-prone. But turning the timber industry loose on 190 million acres of woodlands the Forest Service deems at “extreme risk” for wildfires (nearly the size of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho combined), without environmental review or public involvement is sheer lunacy.

It is shameful that the natural process of fire—and the fear it engenders—is being so grievously abused for political purposes. It is even more shameful that some Montanans have played, and continue to play, such key roles in the politicization.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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