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Know the West

Shoveling vs. sniveling


Watch out, Nevada! It's gonna rain shovels. In case you haven't heard, the Montana timber boys are teaming up with Nevada cow-punchers. The loggers are sending 10,000 shovels to Elko, Nev., as a sign of solidarity against the federal government.

I think collecting stepladders might be a more appropriate gesture. The way the B.S. is piling up around here, it's hard to stay above it.

For 99 percent of Americans who don't reside in either state, here's the deal: Folks in Elko are spittin' mad over the Forest Service decision to close a short stretch of dirt road (HCN, 10/25/99: Nevada rebellion ends with a whimper). The road was within the floodplain of the Jarbidge River and kept washing out, dumping sediment that threatened native trout.

In a flourish of anti-fed rhetoric, Elko officials said they would reopen the road, if they had to do it with shovels.

Jim Hurst is a Montana mill owner with a taste for theatrics. As a "show of solidarity" he offered to send 10,000 shovels to Nevada. The Nevada folks didn't ask for a lifetime supply of shovels and don't know what to do with them when they arrive.

That, of course, is irrelevant. This is a triumph of symbolism over substance.

Add to this mix, Humboldt-Jarbidge National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora. Ms. Flora got sick of the rude behavior of the Nevada provincialists and quit in public protest (HCN, 11/22/99: Nevadans drive out forest supervisor). She came on a speaking tour in Montana, sponsored by the Montana Human Rights Network, urging people to be more neighborly.

Get stuffed, said Jim Hurst. A Montana timber industry spokesman claimed the Forest Service had violated the "human rights" of folks in Elko, for closing the road.

Now, you're probably scratching your head, trying to make all these connections. After all, what does a road in the Nevada desert have to do with the Montana timber industry, let alone human rights?

Let me simplify this in three words: President Al Gore.

Those three words terrify folks like Jim Hurst. And not without reason. The economy is booming. President Clinton's popularity is up. Al Gore is soundly defeating his Democratic challenger. As well-monied as the George Dubya Bush campaign used to be, his father lost to the Clinton-Gore ticket. Smart money doesn't bet the ranch on a Republican White House in 2000.

To these guys, Al Gore makes Bruce Babbitt look like James Watt. The side-effect of fear is nastiness. In Nevada, local county commissioners call Gloria Flora a "fascist." Here in Montana, the Flathead County Commissioners compare the local national forest supervisor to a Nazi.

Their crime against humanity? Managing the national forests according to federal law.

Federal law is messy, imperfect and complicated, but by no means should it be compared to marching several million people to gas chambers. Evidently these county commissioners slept through history class.

Don't get me wrong. Sprinkled amidst his rhetoric, Jim Hurst and the shovel brigade make some good points.

Mills are shutting down. The Sierra Club goal of zero logging on national forests is both bad for the land and bad for rural Western communities.

But there are solutions to these problems, and shoveling coal on the fires of fury isn't among them.

Around the West, including Hurst's home of northwestern Montana, environmental groups and loggers are working together to find ways to cut timber, yet protect wildlife, water and scenery. It requires trust and humility on both sides. It requires setting some of the rhetoric aside.

These collaborative efforts are tiresome, tedious, frustrating and difficult. It's far easier to shout names and wave shovels.

But in the long run, these efforts will pay off.

Face it. Neither the timber industry nor public-land cowboys have a stellar reputation. Both the timber and grazing industries will have to satisfy the American public before they are entrusted with America's public lands.

Inflammatory rhetoric and empty symbolism isn't going to cut it. The proof is on the ground.

I suggest Jim Hurst and his minions get to work. Or all those shovels might be digging their own graves.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Kalispell, Montana.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ben Long