Wooden Polls 

A conservationist takes stock of the Montana primary

Cary Hegreberg is coming to Missoula on June 21, driving the political equivalent of a D-6 bulldozer into the heart of Montana’s roadless lands. Hegreberg, the official cheerleader for the Montana Wood Products Association, aims to rally 2,000 angry people for the public hearing on the national forest roadless policy.

If you see him, ask him which roadless area, specifically, he wishes to gouge with his new road. I doubt he will answer, because the last time he insisted on building new roads into a specific roadless area, outraged elk hunters nearly razzed him out of the state.

Democratic candidate for governor, Mark O’Keefe would do well to ask the same question of his Republican rival, Judy Martz. Martz hopes to turn President Clinton’s roadless initiative into the torpedo that sinks Democratic election hopes. But, like Hegreberg, the last thing Martz wants to do is debate the pros and cons of building new roads into the remnants of wild public forest.

Hegreberg and a vocal faction of the timber industry have engaged in the old political bait and switch. This tactic was evident in the intellectually dishonest “roadless referendum” that county commissioners placed on the June 6 ballots in three northwestern counties.

Although advertised as a straw poll on Clinton’s roadless policy, the vote really wasn’t about the roadless initiative at all. Instead of simply asking whether voters support an end to new road construction in existing roadless areas, which is Clinton’s proposal, the ballot asked people if they support road closures and the creation of 40-60 million more acres of roadless lands.

In other words, opponents of the roadless initiative didn’t have the guts to seek a straight up-and-down vote on the question at hand. Instead, they fabricated a non-existent policy, then misrepresented the vote against it as opposition to an actual policy.

Ironically, the controversy over vehicle restrictions on forest roads stems from Forest Service attempts to meet wildlife and water quality standards for road densities developed during the Reagan Administration.

Hegreberg’s “convoy of outrage” to the Missoula roadless hearing demonstrates that this political gambit will continue through the November election. And Montana Republicans, led by Martz and Sen. Conrad Burns, appear intent on making Clinton’s land-use policies, particularly the roadless initiative, the defining issue of the 2000 election.

The shrill hyperbole is already a centerpiece of Judy Martz’ campaign for governor. To rally right-wing support, she sent a shovel to the Nevada sagebrush rebels and crafted a campaign web site (www.nolandgrabs.org) to generate angry e-mails to President Clinton. The strategy emerging in some Republican circles is to sow angst and confusion among rural voters.

It’s a desperate tactic that became all the more urgent after the June 6 primary. Conservation-minded candidates won all of the top Democratic nominations. The Republicans, meanwhile, deliberately spurned conservationists in their primary. Even secretary of state candidate Bob Brown, a long-time legislative moderate on environmental issues, decided not to seek the support of Montana conservationists.

Republican officials were stunned by the defeat of well-known party insiders Bruce Simon and Bob Anderson by political unknowns in the races for auditor and superintendent of public instruction. And Martz’ own close call in her primary against Rob Natelson reveals a party short on leadership and cohesion.

But O’Keefe, who has endorsed the roadless initiative, needs to be wary of Republican pandering to rural timber communities in the throes of change. Clearly, Montana has reached the end of the once-bountiful timber frontier, which is a wrenching transition for an industry that has always sent a bulldozer over the next ridge to fill its logging trucks with virgin timber.

To avoid being branded as anti-logging fern-feelers, the Democrats need to do something that no Montana politician has yet dared do: Look western Montanans in the collective eye and speak the hard truth. We’re at the end of the road, and industry must now sustain itself on the existing timber base. The forest has been overcut, especially on private, industrial lands. Past logging practices have created devalued, unhealthy forests, which will require time and money to restore. There’s going to be a gap in timber supply, and mills will close.

More fundamentally, Montana’s long-term comparative advantage is in clean water, diverse wildlife, and beautiful vistas, not two-by-fours and plywood. Careful logging can complement environmental values, but it must no longer degrade it. The quicker industry makes that shift, the better it will be.

Just as there is no more easy timber, there are no more easy answers. If Martz goes unchallenged in mouthing senseless platitudes, she probably will be the next governor. If O’Keefe can focus the debate on the resource itself, specific roadless areas and specific watersheds, then he will resonate with the majority of voters who appreciate the fact that someone, finally, is telling them the truth.

Steve Thompson works as an environmental consultant in Whitefish. Opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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