After thinking about it for about forty years, I’ve finally decided to throw out an idea for solving Montana’s totally messed up, mean-spirited, seemingly endless wilderness debate. And it might work in other states, too.
If I were your senator (scary thought, eh?), I’d much prefer to address this thorny issue all at once instead of stringing it out for decades. This is opposite of piecemeal approach preferred your real Senators, including Jon Tester (D-MT) and his beleaguered Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, S. 1470. I admire Tester’s effort, and I’ve supported S. 1470, (with two amendments he rejected), but this bill virtually guarantees we’ll be fighting over the last roadless lands for the rest of my life.
Setting the Stage
Here are some key numbers, rounded-off. In Montana, all 94 million acres of it, we have 25 million acres are federal land managed by the Forest Service (17 million) and Bureau of Land Management (8 million). Out of the 25 million acres, 3.4 million acres are already Wilderness and an additional 6.4 million acres are considered roadless.
Put another way, we have already designated 3.7 percent of Montana (13.6 percent of the federal lands) as Wilderness, and if we also made all 6.4 million acres of roadless lands Wilderness, it would add up to 10.4 percent of the state (39 percent of the federal lands). If we continue to do nothing, almost all of the 6.4 million acres will likely continue to be essentially managed as wilderness.
(I decided, incidentally, to leave National Park Service- and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-managed lands out of my plan. The current debate is not focused on these lands.)
As Your Senator, I Would….
I’d be one of those rare politicians who would feel obligated to serve all the people of my state, even those who didn’t support me during my never-ending campaign, so I’d try hard to address the desires of the three major (but not the only) players in the wilderness debate–conservationists, the wood products industry and motorized recreation.
Since I’m a well-known wilderness advocate, I could simply introduce a bill to make most of the 6.4 million acres Wilderness and let my unsupportive constituents fend for themselves, but that approach not only has little chance of success, it would also be counter to my inclusive policy of serving all Montana residents. So, I came up with this idea.
The Grand Compromise
First, for this senator, is the conservation constituency. Many of my green supporters want it all, but I know they won’t get it all, so I’d look at that 6.4 million acres and pick out the least controversial areas such as the Great Burn, Roderick Mountain, Rocky Mountain Front, the additions to existing Wilderness in S. 1470, perhaps a few of the other areas, and most important, those areas championed by late Senator Lee Metcalf, the remaining seven wildlands in the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act (S.393)–Big Snowies, Middle Fork of the Judith, Ten Lakes, Blue Joint, Sapphire Mountains, West Pioneers, Mount Henry, and the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn (Gallatin Range). Keeping in mind that, with very minor exceptions, these roadless areas are not now–nor are they likely to ever be–open to timber management or motorized recreation, I’d combine them into a true statewide Wilderness bill.
Then, I’d take most, but not all, of the remaining roadless lands and designate them as Backcountry, my term for the so-called “Wilderness Lite” option–a less-restrictive designation than Wilderness. I’d be open to some horse-trading as to what would be allowed or disallowed in Backcountry (or even what it’s called), and even to the option of downgrading one or two of the S.393 areas, such as the Gallatin Range, to Backcountry.
Backcountry would be open to all non-motorized recreation, including bicycling, but not open to road-building or motorized recreation–except, perhaps, for emergency fire-fighting and rehabbing bug-killed forestland, as long as the roads are restored. Actually, Backcountry status would closely resemble the current management of these roadless lands, but it would be congressionally mandated instead of subject to administrative whims.
Second, to address what I’m hearing from the wood products industry, I’d “hard release” all of Montana’s federal land not inventoried as roadless or designated as Wilderness, plus some roadless lands that aren’t really roadless, everything except what’s included in my bill as Wilderness or Backcountry. Hard to come with an exact figure, but this would be around 16 million acres in all, 64 percent of our federal lands.
My “hard release” bill would make this vast acreage available for motorized recreation, logging, mining and any other single use that might be appropriate and favored by local officials and managing agencies. The local planning process would dictate the ultimate use of each acre, each mile of trail.
Then, I’d say, let’s get serious about jobs. It’s every politician’s priority, correct? A measly 70,000 acres cut over ten years, as mandated in S.1470, is tokenism. We already have much more timber under contract and available for logging.
My bill would be market-driven, not acreage-driven, and include whatever streamlining of the appeals process that’s possible without violating or re-writing federal laws and regulations. I’d also include whatever federal help or subsidy I could get through Congress to help the wood products industry develop that elusive market for bug-killed pines and then fast-track salvage logging–not on thousands of acres, but on hundreds of thousands of acres, of forestland along permanent roads.
Third, and if my second point hasn’t already given my greenish friends heart attacks, this should finish them off. In my bill, I’d try to do something especially for the motorized recreation advocates, even though they didn’t vote for me and probably never will.
When talking about the bitter impasse between motorized and non-motorized users, I’ve heard conservationists ask, what’s the problem? The “motorheads” already have 60 percent of the federal lands and 90 percent of the state. But that isn’t true.
Local travel plans have closed part of the 60 percent to public motorized use, as have most private landowners. Nobody knows the real acreage currently open to motorized use, but it’s still a lot.
ATVers feel depressed about being squeezed off so much of their land, and now, they’re saying “no more,” Since I’m unfamiliar with what motorheads want, I asked them what could I do, as their senator, to get them feeling okay at the finish line.
The answer was a congressional mandate that roads and trails currently open to motorized use would remain open with no chance of closure by future administrative action. They’d be okay with most roadless lands remaining roadless and non-motorized, i.e. the status quo, if the remaining federal land now open to motorized use stayed open.
Yep, it’s that simple. And I suspect many conservationists would agree with this solution. In some cases, we’d have to finish travel plans, but once the local planning process is complete, the key is making this mandate as ironclad as a Wilderness designation. That’s what I’d do in my bill.
In addition, I’d propose designating a few large tracts of federal land, perhaps even entire mountain ranges, as what I’ll name Motor Parks, places where enjoyment of the outdoors with motorized vehicles is the management priority.
As your senator, I’d call this my “spreading the pain” approach. Right now, ATVers feel all the pain, and hikers feel all of the gain. Hikers rarely if ever have one of their favorite trails closed off to hiking forever, but ATVers commonly experience such closures.
Hikers have a lot of areas to call their own, all wilderness areas and national parks for starters, plus other areas closed to motorized use for various reasons. But ATVers don’t have any public land in Montana to call their own. Not yet, at least, until I get my bill passed.
At this moment, I’m thinking of a mountain range in Montana that shall remain nameless, so we don’t get off track and focus on it instead of the issue of ending the Wilderness War. This range has about 200,000 acres, half of it federal land. It has a core of a roadless land, but the entire range is fragmented by a series of old roads heavily used by ATVers, so it’s difficult to get much separation between motorized and non-motorized users. I’ve hiked in these mountains several times. I even have two routes from this range in my book, Hiking Montana.
As a senator, I have to remember that I represent all my constituents, not just hikers, so I’m saying to myself that if I had to give up ever going hiking there again and support making it a Motor Park, in exchange for getting a statewide Wilderness bill passed, I’d do it. Ditto for one or two other areas. Again, designation needs to be an ironclad, no different than a Wilderness.
In these Motor Parks, agencies would have to install management policy to protect wildlife and water quality, but motorized use would take priority over other recreation.
And yes, if it isn’t obvious, I long ago gave up on “multiple use trails,” a favorite agency strategy to put both motorized and non-motorized users on the same trail. Let’s face it. The social conflict is nearly irresolvable and mandates separation.
Why All Three Stakeholders Would Support My Bill
After getting all three sections of my 1,000-page bill, the Montana Wilderness Drought Relief Act, drafted and circulated for comment among the stakeholders in advance of introduction, I’d ask each of my three constituencies to support the whole deal, not just part of it, which shouldn’t be so hard to do because they all emerge as winners. Consider this.
Conservationists get new Wilderness and Backcountry protection for most of the last 6.4 million acres of roadless land.
The wood products industry can stop battling wildernuts and concentrate on business and have authority to cut almost anywhere in roughly 64 percent of our federal lands. And more important, industry gets federal help to develop a market for millions of dead or dying trees blighting our landscape.
ATVers give up getting into roadless lands, almost all off limits to them now, but they get two or three dedicated Motor Parks and an guaranteed no-net-loss for much of the remaining 60 percent of the state’s federal lands.
The result? All three constituencies served and the end of the Wilderness War.
I admit it’s a simplistic plan, sort of like an oversized skeleton that needs a lot of meat on it, but we can do that. And in conclusion, let me ask you the one question plaguing all politicians. If I did all the above, would you vote for me in the next election?
Footnote: For more NewWest.Net coverage of Montana’s Wilderness Drought, click here.