Western Montanans are well accustomed to fiery clashes over all things environmental, and the frequent squaring off that typically leaves conservationists (“Obstructionists!”) in one corner and the timber industry (“Shortsighted pillagers!”) in another. What’s not so familiar, though, is aggressive public discord within one side or the other, like what’s currently being seen on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where three prominent Montana conservation groups are under attack by kindred organizations. At issue is a proposal that representatives from Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) wrote jointly with five timber-reliant groups and herald as a “new era of cooperation,” and which others pan as a needless hand-off of roadless lands to industry interests.
“Green Scammers: Behind closed doors, self-appointed interlopers sold out your Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest!” reads the sizable ad printed May 4 in the Missoula Independent and Helena’s Queen City News, paid for by Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Deerlodge Forest Defense Fund, Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council.
The ads respond to an April 24 press conference at which the coalition of Sun Mountain Lumber, Roseburg Forest Products, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, RY Lumber and Smurfit-Stone Container—in concert with MWA, NWF and MTU—unveiled their “new vision” for the 3.3 million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Since 2002, the Forest Service has been revising the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest plan, which will guide the fate of a forest that spans the Continental Divide and much of southwestern Montana. In summer 2005, a draft plan and environmental impact statement were released and the public comment period wrapped up Oct. 31; officials are now working toward a final EIS and forest plan.
But then in December 2005, MWA Conservation Director John Gatchell and Sun Mountain Lumber President Sherm Anderson met at Sen. Conrad Burns’ Missoula field hearing on Forest Service planning and got to talking about the planning underway on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge.
“Neither one of us were satisfied with what the federal government was proposing—it wouldn’t work for timber and it wouldn’t work for wilderness,” says Gatchell, who then began talking to Anderson and the others about a new proposal that both sides could swallow.
The main features of their proposal would increase both wilderness and timber acres, relative to the Forest Service’s draft plan: The agency proposed 216,000 acres for timber harvest and 249,000 acres of new recommended wilderness, while the coalition proposes 716,000 timber acres and 573,000 in new wilderness. Gatchell also emphasizes that all timber sales would be “stewardship contracts,” where proceeds are spent on forest restoration in the immediate area rather than carting the money off to the federal treasury.
“You get a lot more bang for your buck,” he says. “What we’re shooting for here is a whole different model that makes the Beaverhead the nation’s first stewardship forest.”
And without new approaches and new partnerships like this, Gatchell says, both sides will remain at loggerheads over forest management in Montana.
Trout Unlimited Director Bruce Farling sums up this contention: “We’re proposing a whole raft of things that are new and out of the box and all folks need to do is get over their heartburn that there will be some logging done.” But Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, has more than heartburn about the coalition’s proposal.
His and other conservation groups were taken aback by both the content and the process of the proposal, which seemed to drop bomb-like from the sky nearly six months after the public comment period on the four-year process had ended. Garrity says the ad was an uncommon but merited response to the coalition’s announcement.
“They were very open and aggressive about promoting their plan, so they should expect that we’re going to be just as open in criticizing it,” Garrity says. “We want to let the public know that a lot of environmentalists think it’s an idiotic idea to promote the logging of 200,000 acres of roadless areas.”
NWF’s Tom France acknowledges that 200,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas in the draft plan would be logged under the coalition’s proposal but, “Not every roadless area is created equally,” he says.
Keith Hammer, chairman of Swan View Coalition, says that logic is inherently flawed.
“That’s part of why I wonder why these folks call themselves conservation groups. In our eyes, each and every roadless area is important…and we shouldn’t sacrifice some to save a few. That’s nothing but poor political bargaining,” he says. “People say you need to be realistic and cut this baby in half, and then there’s others who respect science and common sense and realize that you can’t keep cutting the baby in half.”
Farling discredits the proposal’s critics, saying, “The groups who’re criticizing us are so marginalized that they’re just getting more people to support us,” he says.
However, the groups that issued the recent ad aren’t the only ones opposed to incursions on Montana’s roadless lands, or critical of the coalition’s proposal. In February, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath joined a national legal battle against President Bush’s rollback of the Roadless Rule, which protects inventoried roadless areas, citing overwhelming citizen support for the state’s last remaining roadless pockets.
Roadless issues aside, though, the Forest Service’s de Golia says he’s been hearing from county commissioners, motorized recreationists and livestock interests who are concerned that the new proposal didn’t consider their needs or input and has been presented at this late stage. The agency doesn’t have money to reopen the public comment process and consider the new proposal, he says, and is still weighing how to handle it.
“If this had been a proposal that had all those groups at the table, it would have been very persuasive, but at this point, we’re just trying to incorporate it into the alternatives that we’ve already dealt with,” de Golia says.
Gatchell isn’t daunted though; he says critics and the agency alike would do well to consider a proposal that breaks out of the traditional ruts surrounding public lands debates, and he’s committed to keeping it on the table.
“It’s never too late for good ideas,” he says.