This wilderness bill is a homespun vision for the West


Growing up in Montana, we always heard about national forests as places of “multiple use.”  When I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, that meant everything from hiking and backpacking to hunting, grazing, selective logging, fishing and catching glimpses of wild animals.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, however, we saw more and more of our national forests converted into single uses, including roads, clear-cuts, tree plantations, off-road vehicles, open pit mines, and dumps of mine tailings.

We who grew up here have firsthand knowledge that roadless wildlands are fast disappearing. in Montana, for example, there were 8,600 miles of roads in the national forests in 1945. By 1997, that had increased to 32,900 miles. The Forest Service has admitted that it’s overwhelmed by its roads, which nationwide amount to more than 380,000 miles. That’s eight times larger than the entire Interstate highways system.

That is why I am a strong supporter of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which will protect 24 million acres of national forest roadless areas in Montana, Idaho, northwestern Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington.

Recently, Montana’s Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg got a lot of ink in Western states with his tirade against this bill. He also took out after New York’s Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who sponsors the Act along with 90 other members of Congress.

But while Rehberg claims that “96 percent of us who live in these areas oppose this bill,” I think he’s dead wrong. In reality, 78 percent of all Montanans are on record as supporting full protection for our remaining roadless areas in national forests. Nine years ago, Montanans overwhelmingly favored President Clinton’s “Roadless Conservation Rule,” which safeguarded the 6.4 million acres included in the Montana portion of the NREPA bill.

The Roadless Conservation Rule received the most public participation of any proposed federal regulation in the nation's history.  In Montana alone, 34 hearings were held, while over 600 hearings were held throughout the country. Back then, more than 1.6 million wrote comments on roadless protection.  An overwhelming majority -- 78 percent of Montanans and 95 percent of Americans -- supported full protection for our roadless wildlands.

Critics like Rehberg claim that NREPA "federalizes" these lands, but he apparently knows little about American history: His fellow Republican, President Theodore Roosevelt "federalized" these lands in 1907, over 100 years ago.

Rehberg evokes the most passion with his stirring defense of gun rights. "There's a new concern looming in the minds of the folks around Montana and the country," he warns.  "Bills like NREPA create more federally controlled land, but they don't guarantee Second Amendment rights on that land."

Huh? Rehberg is a land developer and spokesman for big oil.  If he were a hunter, he would know that roadless wildlands provide the best habitat for big-game hunting.  With guns! Montana has the best hunting in the country, and it's not by accident. Our five-week-long season is due directly to the prime habitat provided by 6.4 million acres of wildlands. Smart hunters and anglers want these lands protected.

Despite Rehberg's claims, private land is not affected by NREPA; grazing and existing mining claims are unchanged; gun rights will not be taken away; and sustainable logging outside roadless areas will continue.

But the biggest lie that Rehberg and other extremists perpetuate is that NREPA is "top-down" management, forced upon us locals by "outsiders." First, these national forest wildlands belong to all Americans, not just local anti-wilderness types.

More importantly, Rehberg is just plain wrong about NREPA's origins. After consulting with conservation organizations, wildlife biologists and others, I wrote the first two drafts of what-was-to-become the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act in 1986 and 1987.  Born and raised in Helena, I am hardly an "outsider."

Contrary to Rehberg's assertions, NREPA is a homespun vision for the Northern Rockies.  It was brainstormed and written by political leaders, economists, scientists, business owners, sportsmen, sportswomen and concerned residents who fully recognized the need for, and the benefits of, protecting the incomparable Northern Rockies ecosystem. It is the only place in the Lower 48 states where all native species and wildlife still have a chance to flourish. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act is entirely homegrown, and I'm proud to support this bill.

Paul Richards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News . He lives in Boulder, Montana, and is a former member of the Montana House of Representatives and a former newsman with The Associated Press.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at