Editorial: Save the Rockies

NINETY-FIVE PERCENT OF THE ORIGINAL FORESTS in the continental United States have been destroyed since the eighteenth century. The Northern Rockies now make up the last contiguous ecosystem in the lower 48 United States. Timber companies are currently pushing a bill through Congress to open up vast areas of public forest in Montana to logging and mining companies, destroying forever a vital part of this ecosystem.

The purpose of the Montana National Forest Management Act, sponsored by Senators Max Baucus, D-Montana, and Conrad Burns, R-Montana, is to designate certain National Forest Service lands as wilderness areas and release others for "multiple use management." The bill, in fact, places only a minor portion of these lands in the federally protected wilderness system, and releases millions of acres of pristine Montana forests to industrial plunder.

 The bill proposes opening nearly five million acres of Montana's National Forest lands to extensive logging, road building, mining and oil drilling, and makes over 98 percent of the Forest Service timber base in Montana eligible for clear-cutting. The Baucus-Burns bill designates less than 20 percent of Montana's remaining undeveloped Forest Service lands for inclusion in the wilderness system, setting aside 1.19 million acres of high-elevation "ice and rock" areas, which are much lower in biodiversity than old growth areas. The bill fails to designate vast regions of de facto wilderness, including entire mountain ranges, for inclusion in the wilderness system. Under the bill, endangered species such as the grizzly bear, gray wolf, woodland caribou and bull trout would suffer irreparable losses of habitat which are already threatened by extensive road building and logging.

 The Baucus-Burns bill passed the Senate in March. The opposition of outraged environmentalists, residents and business people in Montana and nationwide to the legislation led Representative Bruce Vento, D-Minnesota, to propose an amendment to the bill. Vento claims his amendment addresses the problems of the original bill, but in fact the substitute bill barely provides any more protection than the original legislation. The Vento substitute only increases total widerness designations from 1.19 million acres to 1.48 million acres. It would still open nearly four million roadless acres to extensive logging, roadbuilding, mining and other development. And like the original bill, Vento's substitute would isolate pockets of Montana wilderness from the rest of the Northern Rockies, failing to address the vital issue of ecosystem preservation.

 Congress should reject these destructive proposals and support another alternative bill. Representative Peter Kostmayer, D-Pennsylvania, has recently introduced legislation - produced in conjunction with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR), a coalition of Western activists, residents and business people - to preserve permanently virtually all remaining roadless lands in the National Forests of the Rocky Mountains. The Northern Rockies Ecosytem Protection Act, the first bill in Congress to deal with forest management with a multi-state, ecosystem-wide approach, would place more than 14 million acres of U.S. Forest Service Lands in the federally protected wilderness system, create more than 1,300 miles of federal wild and scenic rivers and designate a new national park.

National environmental organizations, with the exception of Greenpeace, have not rallied around the Kostmayer bill. The Vento bill has gained the support of the national Sierra Club. The Sierra Club's Washington, D.C.-based legislative office says, the bill, while still inadequate, represents an improvement over the original legislation and is an important first step in preserving large tracts of Montana wilderness. And while the Sierra Club supports the concept of an ecosystem-wide approach, it lobbied Kostmayer against sponsoring the Northern Rockies bill last year, claiming that the AWR had failed to secure grassroots support for the bill. But in fact, the bill was endorsed by the nearly 200 grassroots groups ranging from fishing and hunting clubs to local Audubon chapters to homeowners organizations to business groups to a host of wildlife protection groups that make up the AWR.

In supporting the Vento bill, the Sierra Club is mistakenly seeking compromise with industry as a means of environmental reform. An organization dedicated to environmental preservation cannot legitimately lobby against innovative and far-sighted legislation that would forever conserve lands that belong to the U.S. public, even in the hope of preserving a small fraction of the area. The "better than nothing" approach will not save the Northern Rockies ecosystem.

U.S. taxpayers own these lands and have a right to control their stewardship. They should not allow the government, with the complicity of compromising environmentalists, to give them away to timber companies. Citizens must demand that the Interior Committe and the rest of Congress reject the Baucus-Burns bill and the Vento substitute, in favor of the long-term approach offered by Kostmayer and the AWR. Five million acres of pristine forests are at stake.n