By Martin J. Kidston
President Clintons proposal to double the amount of national forest lands by protecting them from road development has the strong support of Montanas environmentalists while putting the states resource dependent groups at odds with the idea.
Conservation Director John Gatchell said the Montana Wilderness Association stands behind the presidents initiative to develop tougher conservation policies on national forest lands. He says support by Montanans for the idea runs wide and deep, and lacks only a commitment by the United States Forest Service, which has yet to establish an enduring policy of wild lands conservation.
This is a big, important policy for the state of Montana, Gatchell said. Only the National Forest Service lacks such a policy, and in Montana, we have lost millions and millions of acres to road development in just a few decades.
The presidents protection order would ban road-building, mining and other forms of development within areas designated as national forest, most of which are already under a road-building moratorium. The goal is to protect the remaining forest lands from further back country development and protect whats left for future generations.
Gatchell said the proposal would protect approximately 6.2 million acres of national forest in Montana land which he claims is rapidly disappearing to roads and the harvesting of timber. In the Kootenai, Lolo and Flathead National Forests alone, Gatchell said, nearly 3 million acres of backcountry have recently been lost to logging and road development.
The national forest road system has 32,000 miles of roads, Gatchell said. Those are system roads, no one knows how many miles of ghost roads there are.
The Montana Wilderness Association says the nation forest road system is increasing quickly, and without the presidents policy, Montanans have nothing to ensure that the remaining backcountry stays intact for the future. The association also warns of politicians who will attempt to block such conservation efforts, and instead, would concede public lands as loot for corporate contributors.
The Montana Wilderness Association says it whole heartedly supports responsible logging, as long as it doesnt take place in roadless areas, where the association says Montanas wildlands and outdoor traditions should be preserved. Because other land agencies have a conservation policy, the exception being the National Forest Service, Gatchell said, it is the national forests that need protecting.
The national forests are where the greatest loss of wild country has taken place, Gatchell said. Without a safe keeping policy, we can expect them to dwindle down to a fraction of what it is today.
Montana claims more than 17 million acres of national forest lands in all. Gatchell said the protection order would affect less than one percent of the timber harvest in the state.
But despite how little the conservation proposal actually impacts timber efforts, the Montana Loggers Association says it finds the idea demoralizing.
This is just one in a long list of policies with this administration, said Executive Director for the Montana Logging Association Keith Loson. What the president is doing is appeasing a few wilderness buffs at the expense of the vast majority of Americans who access the national forests via roads.
Loson said the MLA sees the conservation plan as an effort to deny local folks out west access to their national forests. Local collaboration efforts between logging and environmental groups have been established and proven successful. This sort of relationship, however, will be the greatest casualty to the presidents policy, Loson said.
Quite frankly, we think the president just signaled the end of public forests as we know them today, Loson said. It will lock up the land and exclude the people. We think what hes doing is dividing this nation between urban and rural lines to appease his power base at the expense of rural communities.