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The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act

by Ellen Engstedt-Simpson
| November 1, 2007 12:00 AM

A Congressional hearing was held last week that caught the attention and angst of many folks in the West. The subject under discussion was a bill introduced by East Coast members of the U. S. House of Representatives that locks up over 23 million acres of land in five western states, including seven million in Montana.

HR 1975, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, was opposed during the 2007 Montana Legislature under House Joint Resolution 31. The opposition to HR 1975 is well founded by the majority of Montanans who would be affected by its passage. The proposed wilderness, preserves, and recovery areas would impose severe restrictions on access and human activities.

Management of private property within the corridors would lead to prohibition of timber harvesting, mineral, oil, and gas exploration, road construction or reconstruction causing major loss of value to those private property owners.

There is a population in Montana of 920,000 residents who work, live and recreate on the lands proposed to be set aside under HR 1975. It would be truly egregious for Congress to impose the hardship this unbalanced act would inflict on our residents. The language contains only focus on plants, animals, and ecological effects with no consideration of social, economic, and cultural impacts on people who, like it or not, are part of the natural environment.

The Northern Rockies assault along with the attempted resurrection of the Clinton roadless rule should cause all Montanans to pause. The question is begging to be asked as to just how much wilderness, defacto wilderness, roadless, parks, monuments, and other hands off lands does Montana require. At this point in time, over 40 percent of the 22.5 million acres of classified forestland is reserved for one of those mentioned designations. This amounts to ten million acres. In addition, there is over five million acres of national forestland that should be managed as multiple use including timber harvesting and recreation.

Tying up ever-larger numbers of acres of forestland only exacerbates catastrophic wildfires hitting Montana every year. The 2007 fires burned about 900,000 acres, thousands of them in wilderness and national forests. The impact to private landowners was devastating with thousands of acres of grassland and trees toasted along with the public lands. In many of those cases, when the fires came off the mismanaged federal land crews were able to succeed in fighting them because they dropped out of the crowns.

The one point of agreement is that Montana's national forests and other public lands should be essential sources of clean water, clean air, and wildlife habitat. However, watersheds that provide those qualities are not located in the urban interface and thinning a few branches around homes will not protect this valuable resource that we all rely upon. Unfortunately, again because of hands off management, many watersheds are at high risk of fire, insects and disease.

The 2007 wildfires in the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness areas burned over 220,000 acres. According to a long-time forester, because of the fire intensity many of these areas will not regenerate for up to 100 years with sedimentation continuing this entire time. This scenario is hardly what any of us want for Montana's landscape.

By closing off access to huge hunks of Montana's public land through the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and the Clinton roadless rule, the general population will continue to be disenfranchised from the land we use for human activities. Not a single representative from the five affected states has signed on to co-sponsor HR 1975. It is being promoted by a representative from Manhattan, New York, not Manhattan, Montana and one who has admittedly never set foot in our State.

We need to continue to be vocal regarding the constant barrage of creative ways to get humans off the Montana landscape and out of work. With luck and right on our side, Congress will hear us.