End the drought: The perfect time for a new wilderness bill is now

It’s an election year in Montana, and we have two Democratic U.S. senators, one Republican representative and no real challengers to any of the incumbents. Now, when the public finally starts paying attention, is the time to discuss real issues with real long-term benefits for future generations. Making sure those areas of our incredible state with wilderness characteristics get the permanent protection necessary to ensure they remain wilderness is one of those issues. But when it comes to wilderness in Montana, what we’re getting from our leading politicos these days is nothing but a very puzzling silence.

Those new to Montana may not remember the last time we had a Montana wilderness bill. It was 20 years ago, during the election season that sent Democratic U.S. Sen. John Melcher packing and Republican Conrad Burns to Washington. That bill, which passed both houses of Congress, by the way, was pocket-vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan to help the Burns campaign. And Burns, like so many other politicians before and since, then promised to resolve the wilderness issues in Montana once he took office.

As we now know, Burns didn’t resolve the wilderness issue in any way, shape or form, except to ignore it and pretty much make sure any attempts to designate new wilderness would be met with his staunch senatorial opposition. But Burns has been gone for nearly two years now, replaced by Democrat Jon Tester, and gone, too, is his former ability to put a hold on a Senate bill. The U.S. Senate, at least where Montana is concerned, should now be a wide-open path for new wilderness designation. So why don’t we have a bill moving forward down that path?

Some would say there actually is a Montana wilderness proposal under consideration in the form of
the bizarre Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership concept put together by a few conservation organizations and a few small timber mill owners in closed-door meetings. But the very secrecy and limited participation under which the proposal was developed has been one of its main drawbacks, to say nothing of the truly outmoded concept that somehow we can only get wilderness if we allow the timber industry to continue to cut live trees.

Much like the Detroit automotive industry, which is itself looking for federal bail-outs as it continues to push gas-guzzling road hogs on the American public, Montana’s timber industry is in a state of severe decline and unfathomable denial. Anyone who takes a look around can easily see that the state is now covered with vast swathes of dead trees thanks to the drought, bugs and diseases exacerbated by global warming.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of already roaded lands are accessible to harvest these dead trees—and not just here, but throughout the West. In fact, if the scientific predictions are correct, Colorado and Wyoming will lose most of their lodgepole forests within the next five years. But instead of retooling for the reality in which we live, the timber industry continues its patterns of the past and demands more access to green timber—especially old growth.

Then there’s the housing market, which is almost nonexistent these days. Home prices have suffered their worst decline in recent history, planned developments are being shelved for lack of buyers and the so-called “mortgage crisis” has tightened lending significantly. With so little demand for lumber, the state and Forest Service are now giving away valuable stands of old growth timber under the rubric of restoring “forest health”—a Bush-era term that has now been swallowed hook, line and sinker by Democrats—despite the fact that “restoration” forestry has many of the same characteristics as the old money-losing, subsidized road-building timber sales of years past. Only now there’s not even a demand for the lumber.

All of these factors combined make the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership a shaky proposition at best, and even the most optimistic of the collaborators must admit that there’s little chance the rest of the nation will go along with subsidizing the timber industry in exchange for a little slice of new wilderness. If there was a time for this plan, that time has certainly passed.

Which brings us back to the seminal question: Why aren’t our Democratic senators putting forth a comprehensive bill for new Montana wilderness right now—or even talking about it?

As the chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Baucus’ bill would carry incredible momentum. And as far as the election goes, it’s highly unlikely that challenger Bob Kelleher’s support or opposition to more wilderness would have even a minimal impact given Baucus’ $10 million campaign war chest.

Or how about Tester? Given that he doesn’t have to campaign again for another four years (should he choose to do so), what possible drawback could there be for him to sponsor a new Montana wilderness bill? If he’s worried about opposition, the reality is that many of the former powerhouse wilderness opponents are no longer around. With the collapse of the housing market, the obvious over-cutting of the ’80s and the closure of major mills across Montana, the people who brought us the “This business supported by the timber industry” signs are gone. What’s left for opponents is the motorized recreation lobby, which is much diminished by sky-high gas prices and the energy industry that supports the Republicans’ “Drill baby, drill” plan.

The only reason we don’t have a Montana wilderness bill in front of Congress right now is a lack of vision and bold leadership from those we have elected to lead. The excuses of the past are gone, the reasons for wilderness designation are more critical and pressing than ever, and future generations will some day hold us rightly accountable for our failure to do so.

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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