Protecting wildlands, non-motorized activities as important as providing motorized access
To the Editor:
This letter is particularly intended for the business and community leaders of Lincoln County. It concerns the issues of community prosperity, and the community's approach to resource issues.
Many people have expressed a need to diversify the economy in Lincoln County. A reliance on resource extraction has resulted in high unemployment and poor economic performance for many years. Forward thinking people have expressed the desire that the community attract new businesses, new people, and new ideas to revitalize the local community and economy.
But many people are puzzled that the community's stance on forest management and other environmental issues seems locked in the past, and way out of sync with the rest of the state and nation. Even worse, an anti-environmental fervor is evident at many public meetings, whose tone is often intolerant and sometimes intimidating. The community seems to accept that this situation is normal and appropriate.
An example is the recently completed round of forest planning workshops. Besides the usual forest management issues, increased snowmobile access was aggressively promoted at most meetings. Past illegal use was winked at, and many riders openly threatened to ignore restrictions. A spirit of mutual respect and consensus building was hard to find. In the end, elected officials from Lincoln County opposed recommending a single acre of the Kootenai Forest for wilderness protection.
Is this reasonable, or is this an extreme position that is likely to be at odds with the new blood the community hopes to attract? Well, 4.2 percent of the Kootenai is presently protected as wilderness, less than any other forest in the state. In fact, the Kootenai National Forest has more miles of roads and less wilderness than any other national forest in the state. In the previous forest plan, the Forest Service had recommended a few areas for congressional wilderness protection. Removing all wilderness recommendations from a plan is a step that has never been taken elsewhere.
Everybody supports balance in managing natural resources, but of course different people define balance points differently. To many outside observers, Lincoln County tends to stake out extreme positions. Meanwhile the economy is struggling to create jobs, like extraction economies everywhere. Although some people blame those crazy environmentalists for this situation, the fundamental reason is that mechanization has slashed the amount of labor it takes to harvest and process raw materials. In just a generation, industries like mining, logging, agriculture and heavy manufacturing have have decreased employment per unit of output, by five to ten times.
Recent studies have demonstrated a very interesting correlation in rural western communities between prosperity, and large blocks of protected lands, like national parks and wilderness areas. Lincoln County is notably low in both these categories. It seems people with money and skills are being attracted to communities with amenities like beautiful wild areas. This is perhaps why the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce promotes the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area on its website banner.
Many community leaders have observed that to diversify Lincoln County requires more than just talking about it. My observation as a businessman and conservationist from the Clark Fork Valley, is that it is past time for some new directions in community leadership. It is time to moderate the community's approach to resource management issues, an approach that is unappealing to the very people you want to attract. It is time to recognize that accommodating traditional non-motorized activities and protecting wildlands is in the community's best interest, as well as providing for motorized recreation and extraction industries.