Wildness, wilderness and roadless areas are all words that we use to describe lands that remain as nature intended, untrammeled by man’s unquenchable thirst for comfort, convenience and attachment to shiny objects. Fragments of Montana, Idaho, Alaska and smaller parcels scattered about the Lower 48 are all that remain of the once vast wild landscape that existed before Europeans occupied (colonized) and exploited anything and everything that could be converted into gold, silver of fiat money. It was all wilderness once. Lately I’ve been reflecting on experiences and events that have influenced my life in the Northern Rockies. Yes, I’m a transplant, originally from “The East.” College in Denver, and then migrating to Missoula, Montana in the winter of 1974-75. I wrote the following piece for a group I helped to found in 1987 in Swan Lake, Montana, The Friends of the Wild Swan. wildswan.org
After 35 years of grassroots wilderness and forest-ecosystem activism, it’s worth reflecting on one of Friends of the Wild Swan’s most important accomplishments: wildlands protection. In 1987, the social, cultural and political climate surrounding the wilderness/roadless-areas debate was highly contentious, to put it mildly. All across western Montana, and in the Swan Valley in particular, public outrage and resentment was growing rapidly against the rapid expansion of clearcut logging on Plum Creek’s (“checkerboard”) corporate holdings, and indiscriminate clearcutting on publicly-owned forest land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
By the mid-1980s, most western states had already passed (described as rocks and ice) “statewide omnibus wilderness bills,” which should have been more appropriately called pro-industry welfare programs. Western congressmen – Democrats and Republicans alike – took great pride in extolling the colonialist virtues exemplified by industrial-strength logging and roadbuilding into the remaining patches of old-growth, virgin forest. For these political figures, wildness and wilderness were kicked around perennially as a “political football.” For every acre of wilderness legislated by Congress in the “state-by-state” process, four times as many acres were “released” for industrial exploitation and destruction. Released roadless lands were set aside for industry by excluding the public from seeking legal redress – literally, barring the public from their constitutional right to judicial review in a federal courtroom. Multiple-use was literally redefined by Congress in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning, regardless of the financial loss and cost to native fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, old-growth forest and quiet, non-motorized recreation. Only Montana and Idaho escaped this blatant attempt to deregulate the Forest Service’s burgeoning timber (extraction and export) program.
It was estimated at that time (1987-1988) that roughly 6.5 million roadless acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service – USDA existed in an “untrammeled” state, which qualified them for IRA (inventoried roadless area) status, and ultimately for congressional designation as capital “W” wilderness worthy of inclusion into the National Wilderness System. Only Congress, however, can designate the permanent protection as Wilderness as defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
In response, Friends of the Wild Swan got busy mapping all the roadless areas in the Swan Range and Mission Mountains for a wilderness proposal of our own that envisioned the Jewel Basin hiking area and all Swan-Mission qualifying roadless areas (IRAs) as Wilderness. We named it the “Swan-Jewel Wilderness” proposal and submitted a map and legislative language to the Montana congressional delegation for consideration. This represented a significant first attempt to eliminate the threat “release language” represented to most of Montana’s remaining roadless areas. In the Swan Range, it was the first grassroots attempt to include roadless areas North of “Inspiration Point,” including the entire Jewel Basin area, and beyond.
In previous Montana “wilderness” bills, only a fraction of the de facto wilderness received any real protection. For example, in 1984, the Montana “Delegation Consensus Bill” only protected 12.5% of the 6.5 million acres that qualifies for congressional wilderness designation. In 1986, Senator Melcher’s bill only protected 17.5%, and in 1988, Senator Max Baucus’s bill mirrored U.S. Congressman Pat Williams’s bill moving ever so slightly upward to a measly 22% of the 6.5 million acres that exhibited all the wilderness characteristics necessary to meet the designation standard. The 1.4 million-acre, 1988 bill was “pocket vetoed” by Pres. Reagan. Although many Montanans still “don’t get it,” we should thank our lucky stars for Reagan’s reprieve for the 80% that would have been handed over (released for development) to subsidized industrial extraction and the hidden cost nobody mentions, ecological devastation.
Even the “Wildlands Coalition” led by the Montana Wilderness Association, Wilderness Society, Audubon, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation never proposed over 45% of the 6.5 million potential acres for their so-called “Alternative W.” Luckily, and with a stiff measure of objection and protest from grassroots groups like Friends of the Wild Swan, all these political abominations failed. Our message was clear, conservationists want NO WILDERNESS RELEASE language in any bill. Period!
Perhaps, USFS Region-1 Regional Forester Dave Jolly said it best: “It will be more difficult to get the public to accept logging in roadless areas until there is a wilderness bill… there is a constituency for every one of the roadless areas. When we start analyzing the effects of entering any one of them, we hear from people.”
A Lee Newspaper “wilderness poll” conducted in 1988 confirmed the political minefield surrounding the wilderness issue – often referred to as “the third rail” of Montana politics. Public support had gathered a pretty impressive head of steam in the late 1980s. 42% of poll respondents favored “setting aside a majority of Wilderness, but open to some development; 15% said “set aside all for Wilderness.” That totals a strong 57% constituency for designating “a majority” or “all” Montana’s de facto wilderness in a permanently protected status. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison, but none of the elected representatives at that time won by a 57% majority. This was the socio-cultural reality that existed when Friends of the Wild Swan was formed in 1987.
By 1992, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, with the help of many cooperating grassroots groups and conservation biologists working around the region, had drafted the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), the first radical departure away from the state-by-state delegation process. It was the beginning of the end for statewide “omnibus wilderness bills” that protected no more than 22% of the full wilderness potential, while releasing close to 80% to industrial interests to extract timber, hard-rock minerals, water and oil and gas for export for profit. NREPA protects 100% of the eligible acres and IRAs in Wilderness, and adds an extra layer of protection by limiting non-wilderness uses in wildlife linkage corridors between major core habitat areas like Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and existing Wilderness Areas like the Bob Marshall and Frank Church, River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. NREPA protects over 23 million acres of eligible roadless (IRAs) in the five states that comprise the Wild Rockies bioregion – with no release language.
The 1992 Burns-Baucus bill proposed releasing 4.5 million acres of Montana’s 10 national forests to the National Forest Service management plans. By then, not a single conservation group in Montana supported roadless-area release. But the 1.2 million acres of additional wilderness land designated as Wilderness was a significant step backward. Senators Burns and Baucus had downgraded more than 215,000 acres to a lesser standard of protection they called “wilderness study areas.” In an unprecedented spectacle that played out during the floor debate, several Senators rose in opposition and killed it. That would be the last statewide omnibus attempt at anti-wilderness legislation dressed up to look like a wilderness bill by the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Pat Williams would make one last “hail-Mary” attempt. By 1993, Pat Williams had added some popular IRAs to appease the grumbling populace. Williams – calling his bill “Round 16 of The Wilderness Act” – would agree to set aside 1.6 million acres (almost 25%), but still released 4 million acres to be sacrificed on the industrial chopping block. The bill failed, marking an historic death to statewide, omnibus bills with release language that sacrificed 75% of Montana’s natural, wildlands heritage to industrial corporations hell-bent on resource extraction and profit at any cost.
According to the federal government, the inventoried roadless area reported for Montana for the “Final Roadless Rule” (1999) under President Clinton was 6.397 million acres. Now, that’s not an insignificant loss, but compare that to what had been lost in Wyoming (over 1 million acres lost from 1984 to 1992), Oregon and Washington during that same period from 1984 to 2000, it represents an impressive sustained fight and accomplishment over decades of grassroots activism. Endless pressure, endlessly applied. It works! Think on that for one moment, and celebrate. Imagine what Montana would look like today if we hadn’t pushed back as hard as we did.
It hasn’t been easy, but after fighting to save all of what’s left of Montana’s unprotected wildlands, we still have well over 6 million acres that qualify and are included in NREPA; well forth the fight ahead I’d say. Thank you to all who have contributed your support for protecting ecosystem-based wildlife and native fish habitat throughout the entire bioregion.