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for people who care about the West

The Bush administration is moving to mine our heritage

  By any standard political measure, July was not the best of times for the protection of the last remaining wild places in this country.

On July 16 came a ruling by a Wyoming court challenging the legality of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule -- a policy to protect 58.5 million acres of untrammeled national forests and grasslands from road construction and most commercial timber cutting.

Oddly, the court implied that three years of public comment and analysis, 600 public meetings, and 1.6 million public comments did not constitute adequate public involvement.

Then, the Department of Agriculture proposed to eliminate Alaska's Tongass, North America's largest intact temperate rainforest, from the protections of the roadless rule. In the early morning hours of July 18, the House of Representatives defeated an amendment that would have prevented the Bush administration from further weakening the roadless rule.

These setbacks followed announcements by the Department of Interior ending future wilderness reviews and recommendations to Congress on vast swaths of Western public land, and a new ruling that could allow for old cow and wagon trails to be converted into roads that will cut across parks, wilderness, and wildlife refuges.

Many environmentalists will suggest that this perfect storm of bad news spells the end of wilderness as we know it. On the other side, some in the timber lobby will continue to push for road construction and logging as a tonic for unhealthy forests, curing ailing economies, restoring community values, and jobs.

These blithe, and largely incorrect, assertions by both environmentalists and commodity interests mask a larger and far more important fact.

People don't want to see our last remaining landscapes developed. Not for trees. Not for oil. Not for gold or silver. People feel this way not because they necessarily believe the environmentalists and disbelieve the timber industry. Support for wild places is deeply engrained in each of us and is influenced equally by the settlement patterns of 150 years ago and the urban sprawl of the past few decades.

Roadless areas are the best of what remains from the 1.8 billion acres of public-domain lands that the United States acquired through purchase, treaty or conquest. More than any other single factor, it was the land -- and healthy doses of mettle, faith and dreams -- that shaped the collective consciousness of our nation.

Our public lands are the anvil on which the westward expansion and our "manifest destiny" were hammered out. But unlike other industrialized nations of the world, we benefited from visionary leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, who recognized the importance of untamed landscapes to our national character. They controlled the impulse to exploit our lands and waters to the last, and created a network of public lands for future generations to use and enjoy as a birthright. One untidy issue the Bush administration needs to come to terms with is this fact: 95 percent of the 1.6 million people who participated in the public process associated with the roadless policy called for stronger protection of roadless areas. Could it be that this overwhelming sentiment was motivated by the past decade's accelerated loss of open space, forests, wetlands, and farmland -- a pace double that of the previous decade?

But the real question is not over the future of the roadless policy. It is what do we, as Americans, want our landscape to look like in 15 and 150 years? Over two centuries, the abundance of our natural resources allowed and motivated us to build our homes, feed our people and defend our shores.

Through all of the legal machinations and political maneuvering over the roadless policy, one incontrovertible fact remains clear. The mark of a mature nation is not measured in its ability to exploit land for wood, oil, or gold.

It is about demonstrating restraint and leaving choices for future generations.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, an essay service of High Country News (hcn.org). Mike Dombeck is a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Stevens Point), and the former chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Chris Wood is vice president of conservation for Trout Unlimited, and helped develop the roadless rule as a Forest Service employee. They co-authored the new book, From Conquest to Conservation: Our Public Land Legacy, with Jack E. Williams.

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 [email protected].