Biology in the News Explained

A hopeful new direction for U.S.F.S. land management

Our local wilderness controversy has made national news. The article is suggestive of the growing recognition that land use is a complex problem because of the large diversity of stakeholders, but only scratches the surface of the problem.

The current backlash in Beaverhead County, Montana, is against a consortium of environmental groups (including the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Montana Wilderness Association) and logging companies (including RY Timber and Sun Mountain Lumber) who recognize the need for some sort of compromise among those with widely divergent interests in public land. The group is presenting to the Forest Service a plan that exchanges more guaranteed logging in certain forest areas in southwest Montana for more acreage in the forest being designated as wilderness. The plan has the advantages of providing for stable timber harvests that are minimally invasive but will allow logging companies to keep operating, while it recognizes the value of preserving land in wilderness areas to maintain the watershed and prevent overexploitation of resources.

Unfortunately, in this county, “wilderness” and “environment” are the dirtiest words you can say. To put it in perspective, voters in Beaverhead County overwhelmingly supported a 2004 initiative (put on the ballot by an out-of-state mining company) to repeal a ban on cyanide leach mining, which has damaged many an ecosystem and watershed in several states. While the rest of the state was smart enough to understand that no number of local mining jobs is enough to offset the cost of a destroyed fishery, Beaverhead County, whose nearly entire economy is dependent on tourism on its blue-ribbon trout streams and ranching (which also requires clean river water), supported the initiative, apparently seeing the issue only as a vote against the evil environmentalists.

A deluge of letters to the editor is now condemning the proposed logging-environmental draft forest plan simply because it creates a few more thousand acres of wilderness, a small percentage within a sea of exploited forest. The letter writers take the common view that the creation of wilderness somehow takes land away from their use, because they prefer to use ATVs rather than their own two feet (or horses) for their recreation on public land. What has been lacking in every letter by an ATV user so far has been any acknowledgement that some ATVers themselves fuel anti-vehicle backlash when they ride off road illegally, trashing out areas that are no longer available for the enjoyment of others. They also do not acknowledge that hiking and skiing, being quite, no-emissions activities, do not impinge on anyone else’s enjoyment of the forest, while the use of ATVs and snowmobiles very much degrades the forest experience of non-users. It is ironic that they claim that the use of the forest is being stolen from them by the addition of a few more acres where they are not allowed, when they have already stolen peace and fresh air from the rest of us in the great majority of the national forest.

They call for “management” of the forest because it is a “waste” to let nature take its course in the form of fires and insect outbreaks – and apparently they are ignorant that the potential new law as drafted allows for management of fire and insects in wilderness areas when deemed necessary, and the grandfathering of grazing rights. In the mythical world of the wilderness opponent, nature can be completely controlled and managed, and any failure to do so by the forest service is blamed on “environmentalists” (who apparently have god-like powers possessed by no one else).

The logging-environmental consortium came together to reach a compromise because all the organizations realize that current management policies are unsustainable. They have drafted a perfectly reasonable proposal that keeps logging alive in Montana, but supports both economic and ecological sustainability, unaddressed in past policies which subsidized logging companies to clear cut huge swaths of land, without remediation. The Forest Service is under no obligation to support the new plan, but would be well advised to do so. Those of us lucky to live in a county that consists mainly of public land would do well to remember that the land is not a personal playground to exploit here and now, but belongs to every single U.S. taxpayer, living and unborn, from sea to shining sea.


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