Montana politicians are usually quick to defend our state brand -- "the last best place" -- although they tend to falter when it comes to defending what makes our state the best. And that is our wildlands, the real last best places in Montana. They are the substance behind the image.
For the past 20 years, it's been up to low-budget grassroots conservation groups scattered about the state to defend its 6.5 million acres of unprotected wildlands, all of them suitable for wilderness designation.
Based in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, Friends of the Bitterroot is a nonprofit with no paid staff but over 700 members. As part of the group, I've worked for two decades to protect wildlands on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. All of us in the group recognize the incomparable value of the area's pristine water and unique assemblage of world-class fish and wildlife, including cutthroat trout, arctic grayling, grizzly bears, wolverine, fisher and lynx. These headwaters wildlands are at the heart of the last intact ecosystem in the Lower 48 states.
Partly due to the conservation work of local volunteers, these wildlands and their diverse wildlife remain much as Lewis and Clark saw them when they crossed the Continental Divide in what is now the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
In spite of -- or maybe because of -- our defense of these wildlands, Friends of the Bitterroot and other active local conservation groups were excluded from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership. This is the group that brought together several statewide and national conservation groups –– mostly groups that have seldom engaged in the defense of local wildlands –– with timber companies. They met in private to divvy up the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, apportioning land for logging, motorized recreation areas and wilderness. Local county commissioners and motorized-use interests were not invited to participate.
Now, Montana Sen. Jon Tester's Senate Bill 1470, the "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2009," has adopted the exclusionary "partnership" proposal, though Sen. Tester himself says, "Because there are many components to the legislation, calling it a 'wilderness bill' is a mischaracterization."
That is an understatement. The wildlands that local conservationists and others have helped protect for years are being sacrificed as political trading-stock by timber companies and a few, mostly distant, collaborationist conservation groups.
Upon learning of the bill's introduction, Friends of the Bitterroot met with Tester's staff in an attempt to improve it. But the ill-advised horse was already out of the barn; there was no indication that any of our comments were even heard, let alone taken into consideration. The Democratic senator, led into a policy quagmire, chose to exclude his local constituents and to ignore the American public's interest in the protection of wilderness.
Disenfranchising stakeholders leads to unhealthy politics. The Tester bill mandates the logging of 7,000 acres per year on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, nearly twice the historic average. And it mandates this increase of taxpayer-subsidized and unsustainable logging even when there is no market. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on the bill, Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman testified, "S 1470 in particular includes levels of mechanical treatment that are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable."
Sherman also said, "My concern (about this bill) is that there will be somewhat of a balkanization that occurs between the different regions in the country." Do we really want to promote the devolution of our national forests into state or local fiefdoms, each managed differently depending on local politics and commercial interests?
Oddly, as a longtime forest watcher and sometimes agency critic, I now find myself defending the management policy of the Forest Service. The agency is tasked to use science and an open public process that does not depend on who one's friends might be. You simply need to be a citizen of America.
Sen. Tester's bill would remove protections from far more land than it would protect. It would permit military training and allow sheepherding with all-terrain vehicles in wilderness. Is wilderness-in-name-only –– let's call it "wino" –– the highest fate for the state's last best places? The Tester bill would lock in motorized use permanently in some wildland areas, no matter the costs to wildlife, land or water. Is Montana so flush with wildlands that we would trade the revered Sen. Lee Metcalf's Wilderness Study Area legacy for yet another motorized playground?
Wilderness is an ancient legacy far too valuable to trade for perishable pork sausage. It is absolutely irreplaceable. This bill should not pass.
Larry Campbell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and is a participant in the Last Best Place Campaign.