We need a regional wilderness law

  • Diane Sylvain


Montana roadless lands have been under siege for nearly two decades. Although Montana congressmen brought forth 15 wilderness bills, they were more accurately commodity bills that strongly favored timber and mining. All failed.

In June 1993, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) tried again. Although #16 is better in some respects than its predecessors, it is no prize.

In question are 6 million acres of the last "roadless" areas in Montana. They are scattered across 10 national forests, mostly in high ranges like the Swan, Bitterroot, Crazies, the Flints, and the Front Range. They also include the Continental Divide, Big Belts, and Elkhorn Mountains.

Often rugged and remote, roadless lands have been relatively unscathed by human activity. Herds of elk use them for summer range and for survival during the hunting season. A few grizzlies retreat into their depths, and the pine marten, wolverine and pileated woodpecker cannot survive without them. They also provide peace and quiet for hikers, campers and hunters. Perhaps their highest value is to store water, and release it gradually to maintain steady streamflows - and provide for Montana's wild trout fisheries.

Who gets what will be decided by dividing up the "spoils." Williams' bill #16 would allot the public 1.5 million acres of spectacular scenery - mostly rocks and ice, plus another half-million in special areas for further study as wilderness.

The remainder, about 4 million acres, will be available for logging and mining, or "multiple use," as industry prefers to call it.

The future of these 4 million acres can best be predicted by the impact of mining and logging over the past three decades.

Harsh as mining was in early days, modern cyanide leaching - the massive grinding up of the landscape for a few ounces of gold - and the explosion of new mining activities are even more destructive.

Then there's logging and the attendant road networks that have a more insidious impact on the land and its inhabitants. Logging has disrupted migration routes for elk, their breeding and calving grounds, and decimated hiding cover. Roads and traffic stress elk particularly. Biologists found that when road density increases from one to two miles per square mile, half the elk leave the area.

Montana congressmen have assumed that 1 million acres of "harvestable" timber will be available in a few large blocks. On the contrary. These are scattered in hundreds of pockets across the length and breadth of western Montana forests. Access to this timber would require a web of 5,000 to 8,000 miles of new roads. These would crisscross timbered lands and non-timbered lands. Wildlife habitat, fishery ecosystems and recreation areas would be churned into a wasteland.

On the east and west slopes of both the Big Belts and the Continental Divide many elk have moved off logged areas to private lands, sometimes off-limits to hunters. When elk pile up on private lands even tolerant ranchers howl. Elk then become the responsibility of the state, which may have little choice but to reduce breeding herds, initiate damage control, or set special late seasons - all at considerable expense. As a result, Montana sportsmen will see more regulations, fewer opportunities and less freedom to hunt.

Terry Lonner, research biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, noted that in 1960, 84 percent of the elk-hunting units were open to either-sex hunting. By 1980, this had plunged to 3 percent - the loss attributable to a 450 percent increase in logging activities.

Clearly, sportsmen are big losers in this change: Hunters spend millions of dollars through big game licenses to buy critical wildlife habitat, only to give up thousands of acres of once-prime big game habitat to logging.

Even more vulnerable to logging are Montana's prized wild-trout fisheries. Montana governors extol them, tourists spend millions of dollars to fish them, and the local anglers live for them. But logging is often devastating to trout. Unlike elk, they cannot escape to an unlogged ridge when conditions become intolerable.

To fish Montana waters is still every angler's dream. But this once-great fishery is breaking apart. On the national forests, logging and roads are prime suspects. The 1986 Helena Forest Plan acknowledges that sediment from roads enters streams and smothers trout eggs, fry and food organisms. It plugs up hiding areas so that fingerlings cannot escape predators.

Near Helena both the Little Blackfoot and Big Blackfoot have become depleted fisheries, stressed from top to bottom by logging and mining activities. Farther west, trout fisheries like the Bitterroot, Fisher and Swan have been devastated by logging. The native bull trout, particularly sensitive to sedimentation, has disappeared from half its former range. To stem its further decline, several groups are seeking to give it threatened and endangered status.

In 1986, the Montana Department of Health's Water Quality Bureau warned the Environmental Protection Agency: "... accelerated road building and timber cutting on U.S. forest lands now pose the single greatest threat to aquatic life."

Perhaps the least appreciated but most valuable resources on mountain lands are its watersheds. Under pristine conditions these act like giant sponges, filtering and storing water. But watersheds function far less efficiently when logged and mined. The city of Helena discovered this recently when EPA required it to build a $7 million filtration plant on Ten Mile Creek to clean up its water supply.

The taxpayers discovered it when their water bills nearly doubled. Under good forest conditions a filtration plant would be unneeded.

At the field level, some Forest Service biologists have attempted to preserve old-growth forest habitat for wildlife and fisheries, but they have been overwhelmed by foresters with a mandate to log. Those who protested too much were isolated, transferred or forced out. Biologists for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a Montana agency, also have a vital role in protecting wildlife and fisheries on the national forests. They have been silenced; their differences are with the governors' policy of strong support for the logging industry.

In 1990, the Forest Service timber budget was about $1 billion - nearly nine times greater than the combined funds for wildlife, fisheries and watershed.

Among the shortcomings of the Williams bill are that it ignores the long-range problems endemic to mining and logging. It is based on traditional acceptance of mining and logging as being the highest and best uses. Often it implicitly accepts the judgment of the upper echelons of the Forest Service when the agency's decisions have lost credibility. Its predisposition in favor of logging and other commercial uses ignores scientific concerns about ecosystems and the high value of resources like watershed, wildlife, fisheries and wilderness.

In the early 1990s, letters and articles urged Williams and other congressmen to commission a committee of knowledgeable scientists to review and inventory the remaining 6 million acres of roadless land and submit proposals to best manage them - considering watershed protection, wildlife, fisheries, recreation, wilderness, and other public resources for the long-range public benefit. By and large much of the needed information is already available.

Another request was to start a jobs program to provide work for unemployed forest workers. Watersheds, wildlife and fisheries habitat would be rehabilitated. Many logging roads would be closed and revegetated without delay.

While the Williams bill does provide for a scientific study by the Forest Service Research Branch, there are problems: The study will not be by an independent scientific committee; there is no protection against extractive uses during the study period; "hard release" language virtually bars further wilderness; and the study includes all of Montana - a coverage that could significantly dilute the attention needed for the roadless lands.

A much more comprehensive ecosystem bill called the Northern Rockies Protection Act has been drafted by environmental groups. It includes about 16 million acres of land, mostly roadless, in Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. Congress people in these states have reacted with cold disdain. But 43 sponsors from other states have already signed on. Environmentalists have a hefty appetite for this bill, even though some skeptics view it as pie in the sky.

We should remember that in the past the public has fought shoulder to shoulder with the Forest Service to stop the national forests from being handed over to individual and corporate ownership. Public taxes and effective land management have protected, even enhanced, these national treasures. In these fights the Forest Service has had a history of defending the public interest - so effectively that private corporations have spent countless hours and dollars attempting to own these lands.

Now this new bill will virtually hand over these resources to industry. Should taxpayers pay for 6,000-to-8,000 miles of logging roads on these lands? Coupled with other logging costs, the estimated taxpayer bill will run between $500 million and $1 billion.

Not long ago millions of acres of primeval forests grew in Montana. Now only 6 million acres remain; there aren't any more and there never will be. It would be shameful to convert these lands to stumps, wood chips, 2 x 4s, and cyanide leach pits.

Noel Rosetta worked for the Forest Service for 16 years, 15 of them in Montana, as ranger, and later as range, wildlife and land staff person. Retired since 1972, he lives in Helena where he works with several environmental and conservation groups.

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