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Congressional lawmakers once again introduced a sweeping federal wilderness bill aimed at preserving the forests of the Northern Rockies, despite the fact that not one congressional delegate from the region supports it.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) has appeared before every Congress between 1993 and 2007. Each time, NREPA accrues more and more congressional support, but has never managed to secure a single vote from Montana, Wyoming or Idaho. A few urban Democrats from Oregon, Washington and Colorado list among its supporters.

Denny Rehberg, R-Montana, led the opposition to NREPA the last time it appeared before the House. He stands poised to repeat that role with the legislation proposed earlier this month.

“[NREPA takes] a top-down approach that doesn’t account for the impacts on the local economy, nor does it adequately protect access for hunting, fishing and other forms of recreation,” Rehberg says in an official statement. “When similar legislation was introduced in 2007, I heard from thousands of Montanans over the course of just a few days—and they told me loud and clear that Montana doesn’t need Washington, D.C., imposing its will and telling us how to take care of our public lands.”

Some local conservation groups take exception to Rehberg’s characterization of NREPA as a “top-down approach,” citing their long-term involvement with the proposed legislation. Yet, supporters admit that finding a rural Mountain West representative to back the bill continues to be a challenge.

“A bill that they would support, I would not support,” says Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, referring to a handful of Republican Mountain West lawmakers who staunchly oppose NREPA. “It’s federal land that belongs to all Americans—not just Dennis Rehberg.”

The bill would designate as wilderness the inventoried lands in the Northern Rockies that were protected under the Clinton “roadless rule”—roughly 24 million acres. NREPA’s primary sponsor is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “The most important point to remember is that these are public lands owned by all Americans,” she says. “We must do all we can to protect them for future generations.”

Bill advocates say they’ve courted regional congressional newcomers like Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. Neither currently plans to back NREPA.
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