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ENVIRONMENT

Our Wild Lands Can Give No More

October 19, 2003|Rick Bass | Rick Bass is the author of "The Hermit's Story," a collection of short stories.

LIBBY, Mont. — I consider myself a moderate environmentalist. I believe that the remaining roadless lands in our national forests deserve permanent protection. I also believe that there are selective opportunities for logging and thinning in forests bordering cities and towns. Yet, my moderation is beginning to crack.

It has been 27 years since wilderness in Montana has received any new protections, even as the need for governmental protection has increased dramatically. In California and a few other states, ecologies have been preserved. But the national trend is increasingly disturbing: Our environmental treasures are being stripped away. Montana is the canary in the coal mine, alerting us to the bigger problem of an administration and Congress trying to undo our national-resource laws, piece by piece, on the sly.

The timber industry in Montana, in particular, has gained one concession after another. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, has almost single-handedly gone to bat for the industry. He strongly supports a higher softwood tariff on Canadian timber. He sponsored stewardship forestry projects to promote sustainable, community-based use of the state's timberland. He recommended that environmental review of some small-scale logging projects be streamlined to improve efficiency. And he called for increased funding to thin forests abutting urban communities.

Though I'm grateful for Baucus' concern for Montana's timber-dependent rural communities, such as the one in which I live, it often feels like "give," "give," "give," instead of "give in exchange for something else." For example, in northwest Montana's Yaak Valley, where not a single acre of 1 million is protected as wilderness, there are only a few roadless areas remaining, and they are the most inaccessible and most distant from human habitation and possess little timber value.

And now, just when you might think that moderate environmentalists have nothing more to give, along comes one of the most shocking anti-environmental legislative provisions ever, and possibly a dangerous national precedent. Its author is Montana's junior Republican senator, Conrad Burns, who has a penchant for claiming credit for, when not quashing, Baucus' collaborative work. Burns' target is the Kootenai National Forest. His rider, attached to the Interior appropriations bill, would allow logging of a least 2,000 acres of old-growth forest and logging and road building in one of the most threatened grizzly bear habitats in the nation, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. In addition, it would exempt certain future salvage-logging projects in Flathead National Forest from having to comply with the Clean Water Act. Flathead is adjacent to Glacier National Park, one of the crown jewels of the continent.

Why this turn of events? In a lawsuit filed late last year, environmentalists claimed that the Forest Service had not, as required by law, presented its old-growth data on Kootenai to the public. Nor was the service dutifully monitoring the health of the forest's old-growth-dependent species. It was an open-and-shut case.

I was a member of an environmental group that urged the Forest Service to settle out of court, since obtaining an injunction against timber-related activities in the affected areas would disrupt local rural communities. Montana's Forest Service personnel were receptive to our offer, but U.S. attorneys weren't. Sure enough, the Forest Service lost in court -- and now Burns has brought forth his rider that would nullify the court's decision to stop five logging projects covering nearly 9,000 acres.

One of the bitterest ironies is that our group kept on trying to broker a peace agreement with the Forest Service after it lost in court. We acted as a liaison between the service and the plaintiffs in performing an exhaustive evaluation to determine which timber sales might be able to still go forward. We also helped persuade the plaintiffs to drop another lawsuit, one in which old-growth concerns had been met. These two actions would have secured nearly 30 million board feet of small-diameter timber for local Montana mills. The system was working fine, until Burns crushed the law.

What more can an environmentalist give? Always more, it seems, until there is no wilderness left. The Senate is considering a compromise, co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), of the Bush administration's so-called "Healthy Forests Initiative." The initiative aims to reduce the threat of devastating wildfires by thinning -- read: logging -- forests. But Feinstein's bill, among other things, would make it easier to log in some roadless and old-growth areas and weaken judicial review of Forest Service decisions. The legislation is unneeded because the tools and authority necessary to protect communities from fire already exist. All we need is funding.

Californians should care about what may happen in the Kootenai and Flathead national forests, as Montanans should care about the Sierra forests, and as we should all care about our legacy in Alaska's Tongass and Utah's red-rock desert. Environmentalists -- and roadless lands and old forests -- have nothing more to give other than the protections afforded by the law. If we budge on that, the public will soon have no legal standing in the corporate takeover of public lands.

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