CON: When a wilderness bill is a sham

  • Larry Campbell


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 ( He lives in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and is a participant in the Last Best Place Campaign.

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

Jan 17, 2010 01:38 PM
Larry is fond of repeating that his group has "700 members". But when we look at IRS form 990, which lists revenues, contributions, and membership dues we find a confusing story. In 2007, the FOB listed only $3,000 in revenues of which only $490 were from "membership dues". Are their dues only 75 cents?. No. Their website lists dues as $25 ($10 if you're fincncially challenged). In other words, there are only 20 "dues paying members".
     This begs the question, what constitutes a "member". Numbers of hits on your website? Number of newletters mailed and thrown in the trash? I wish Larry would shed some light on this descrepency,of course he won't. When a group "tosses" out such membership numbers without any explanation, it raises serious concerns about their credibility. It raises concerns about their ethical behavior if they just "conjure" such numbers up.
       The Montana Wilderness Association, which supports the Partnership plan, has listed $156,000 from membership dues in 2007. They claim to have 6000 members. Their website lists dues as $25/year. It all adds up. I guess the friends of the bitteroots don't have very dedicated members if they can't cough up $25/year. Larrys membership claims have less to do with reality, and more to do with no ones checks his facts.
      Only 15% of Montanans oppose the Partnership plan. Half of those are people who are upset by too much wilderness. Larry speaks for 10% of Montanans, but he knows whats best for all
Tester logging bill
Jan 19, 2010 10:44 AM
Actually Larry presented a factual account of what is happening wit the tester logging bill.

This guy "logger" is a right wing extremist from rapid city, SD.
He often posts hysterical rants and paosts false info about anyone he thinks is an "evil green". He is full of baloney and is a slanderizing fool.

You speak for me Larry and the rest of the actaul citizens of MT.
Tester Bill
Larry Campbell
Larry Campbell
Jan 19, 2010 03:04 PM
Whoa 'Logger', a swing and a miss... try to keep your eye on the issues. It has become a ploy by supporters of the Tester logging bill to focus on the critics' messengers rather than the message. I don't wonder why. That speaks louder than words, even to those not familiar with the messengers or the messages.
FOB's membership number has nothing to do with the Bill, only by way of introduction to Friends of the Bitterroot. If the crux of your off-the-mark comment has to do with member support you must not be from around here. Anybody from around here who knows us knows we have widespread grassroots support.
Tester's Logging Bill
Jan 22, 2010 01:25 PM
Tester ran on a campaign of transparency – the formation of his Logging Bill has been anything but transparent. Today’s headlines show the cover-up and behind the scenes manipulation continues; Rep. Rehberg wants a public meeting with Tester to discuss the Logging Bill, Tester of course wants a one-on one private meeting. This Bill should die the quick death it deserves.