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Do we have enough wilderness?

by Molly Montana
| July 22, 2010 12:55 PM

Many of us have heard the opinion expressed many times in Lincoln County that we have enough wilderness already. As a longtime wilderness supporter, I have learned that people who state this opinion often have little idea of how much wilderness we actually have.

Most folks are surprised to learn that only about 2 percent of Lincoln County is presently protected as wilderness, which is the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area.

Statewide, about 3.7 percent of Montana is protected as wilderness; less than neighbors like Idaho (9 percent), Oregon (5 percent) and Washington (10 percent). Whether this amount is “enough” depends on how we weigh some important priorities.

Just a hundred years ago, most of Montana was wild country by any definition. As recently as the 1950s, most of the Kootenai National Forest was still wild and undeveloped. Today, we are discussing whether we should protect some of our remaining wild places before they lose their wild and natural character and succumb to the roads, motors, noise and other disturbances of the modern age. 

We are so fortunate to live in Lincoln County where there is most certainly enough land for everyone’s enjoyment. Enjoyment is described in different ways by different folks. I’ve raced down, up and around many trails on my dirt bike, but then I also spend time hiking or horseback riding in the wilderness with absolutely no sounds other then those of nature.

Unfortunately, we are rapidly losing opportunities that our parents’ generation had to hunt, fish, camp, explore and enjoy wild country. The next generation already has far fewer wild places to explore and enjoy, and will have even less unless we take steps soon to protect remaining wild places from development.

We sometimes hear that we will somehow be “locked out” of wilderness areas. This is untrue. All wilderness areas are wide open to the public – you just can’t take your machinery with you! Isn’t this a good thing for some limited percentage of our public lands?

I have also learned that wilderness opponents often fear that “more wilderness” will put new restrictions on areas that have already been developed. I can understand this concern, but in fact wilderness advocates like me simply want to protect some of our premier existing wild country, to keep it just the way it is, and with little or no change in existing uses and management.

How difficult is it to have designated areas for recreational motorized toys and designated areas for wilderness where one can be alone with nature?

We have not protected a single acre of wilderness on the Kootenai forest since 1964, and I think now is a good time to get something done. Currently, we have proposals for two new wilderness areas in Lincoln County. One is the Roderick Roadless Area, included in Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Another is the Scotchman Peaks Roadless Area in the West Cabinets.

Both of these areas are wild today, and will simply stay that way if we can succeed in designating them as wilderness. If that happens, then about 5 percent of Lincoln County will be wilderness. Is that too much?

To hear some people talk, making some modest additions to our 2 percent of protected wilderness areas is a horrible thing, even something that violates the traditions and culture of our area.

But an increasing number of people feel the opposite – that our stunning wild country is part of what makes our area special, what makes growing up here special, what makes retiring here special, that it provides great benefits to people and wild creatures, and that it represents a world that helped make our pioneers courageous, resourceful and also thankful for the blessings of the land.

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(Molly Montana is the owner of Molly Montana Real Estate in Troy/Libby and a state council member of the Montana Wilderness Association.)