Ex-rancher heads Wilderness Society

  • Jon Roush

    Charlene Osman/The Wilderness Society

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Wilderness Society's new president says he knows firsthand about life in a small rural community, which is why he opposes Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's consensus approach to grazing reform.

Babbitt's advisory councils "lend themselves to responding too much to local biases," Jon Roush said in an interview last month. "I've lived in a small town in the West (Wisdom, Mont., population 100), and in that kind of town ... it's very hard to take what might be perceived to be an unpopular stand."

But The Wilderness Society wants to help improve Babbitt's reforms and not just be "nay-sayers," Roush said. "I left my land in better shape than I got it. And I did it by ranching."

Many ranchers are good stewards, Roush continued, but there are also "a lot of ranchers out there who really are, to their own detriment, sort of trashing the land just by negligence or ignorance or whatever."

Roush began his career as an English literature professor at Reed College in Portland in the 1960s. In the 1970s he served as The Nature Conservancy's executive vice president in Washington, D.C.

Although some critics say he misrepresents himself as a Westerner, Roush countered, "I've lived in and out of Montana since the mid-1960s. While I was sometimes holding other jobs, I always came back to Montana."

He lived there full-time after 1977, when he bought the Switchback Ranch, a cattle operation in the Bitterroot and Big Hole valleys. He sold the ranch in 1988 and founded Canyon Consulting, which advised environmental groups and government agencies on strategic planning and marketing.

"It's useful to have a Rocky Mountain Westerner in this position. So many of our issues are public-lands issues and Western issues," Roush said. He had just returned from a visit to Wilderness Society field offices in Idaho and Montana. "There are so many things happening right now that are crucial and are going to have an effect for decades to come."

Roush became the society's president in January, filling a vacancy after George Frampton was appointed assistant secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks by President Bill Clinton.

He was selected by the society's governing council over two other finalists after a six-month search. Although any leader puts a stamp on an organization, Wilderness Society spokesman Ben Beach said the new chief executive doesn't represent an attempt by the governing council to change the group's direction.

Although The Wilderness Society is involved in a variety of efforts, its focus remains wilderness. It plans to bore into the Forest Service budget and try to increase spending on wilderness management, which now consumes a mere 1 percent of the agency's budget.

It is not just the Forest Service budget Roush must pay attention to. The Wilderness Society last year cut $1 million from its own budget because membership had dropped by 100,000 since 1990, to 300,000. Downsizing somewhat, the group closed its Oregon field office and consolidated Northwest operations in Seattle, but retained offices in Boise, Idaho, and Bozeman, Mont.

Roush believes people "see us as a national organization, and on national issues they believe - mistakenly - that with this new administration things are under control."

To rebuild and make progress against a Congress that is currently hostile, the group is once again mobilizing the grass roots. The Wilderness Society, like other national environmental groups, is strengthening its capacity to generate letters and telephone calls to members of Congress and to counter claims of opponents, especially property rights advocates.

"There's a myth out there that environmental regulations are somehow wreaking some huge economic hardship on people. That's not true," Roush said. Major corporations are the main victims hit in the pocketbook, and in turn they are bankrolling the anti-environmental movement, he said.

Asked for another perspective, Larry Tuttle, who left The Wilderness Society's Portland office before it closed, faulted national groups for failing to set an aggressive agenda with the Clinton administration.

"We've lost two years of progress," Tuttle said. "As a movement, we're in worse shape in public lands protection than we were at the end of the Bush administration, because concessions to ranchers and others are being made under the guise of reform."

Larry Swisher writes about Northwest issues from Washington, D.C.

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