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Rubber hits the Roadless

Will local control work?

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Montana has just fewer than 6.4 million acres of roadless land, which accounts for more than 11 percent of the nation’s total 58 million inventoried roadless acres. Now, for the first time under the Bush administration’s new Roadless Rule, Montanans with an interest in shaping policy on that 11 percent are gathering to discuss ways in which locals may be able to exert increased control over national roadless areas. The first meeting toward that end was held in the Eureka High School auditorium Thursday, June 9, drawing approximately 100 attendees from Lincoln and Flathead counties. Going in, it was clear that emotions were running high, given that Eureka’s Owens & Hurst sawmill had run its last log Monday, June 6.

“The problem, as this community knows, is that we’re shutting down sawmills,” said Keith Olson, executive director of the Montana Logging Association.

Despite aroused tensions, the meeting maintained a generally calm tone, perhaps in part because there were few environmentalists in the room to draw loggers’ ire (an informal “show of hands” straw pole conducted by one attendant who asked the group if they wanted to see certain forest areas designated as wilderness drew only two raised hands).

“I think the environmental types came to the first meeting and saw that they weren’t going to get their way,” Rep. Verdell Jackson (R-Kalispell) said to a fellow attendee before the meeting, referring to earlier organizational meetings conducted by the same legislative delegation that organized the Eureka gathering. That delegation includes Jackson and Rep. Rick Maedje (R-Fortine), Rep. Ralph Heinert (R-Libby) and Sen. Aubyn Curtiss (R-Fortine).

Sen. Curtiss asserted, and decried, that a vast majority of the more than 2.5 million comments the federal government received on Roadless Rule policy came from “the preservationist communities,” a prospect she said could lead to “someone from New York determining our culture.”

The assembled group generally spoke of adjacent national forest land as a local, rather than a national, asset.

Olson said that the group would offer “reasoned input to address issues from a rational perspective,” not “e-mail campaigns from across the nation,” which his tone suggested are somehow less valuable to the discussion.

The Bush administration apparently agrees with Olson’s assessment, since Bush’s May 5 overturn of the Clinton Roadless Rule (derived from a Wyoming federal court decision in 2003 that’s still under appeal) has thrown the issue of roadless area management, with a nudge from Bush, into the court of Western states’ governors.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer sent a letter to President Bush Tuesday, June 7, stating that if the administration wants governors to take the reins on roadless management changes, it needs to pony up the money and resources to do so—to the tune of $9 million and 500 of the state’s 2,300 Forest Service employees.

Rep. Jackson says no further money or resources are necessary to draft state roadless policy, because, he says, “All we want is support. Nobody has to pay us to do this. We’ll just do it.”

Jackson’s “get ’er done” attitude was met with words of caution by Kootenai National Forest District Ranger Betty Holder, who said that any proposed changes must include “environmental and social” reasons the changes are necessary.

Recommendations, she said, will also have to take into account grizzly bear habitat and possibly that of lynx, currently the subject of a petition for listing as a threatened species in the area.

While the assembled timber enthusiasts were heavy on questions (“Why do we need so much roadless wilderness anyway?” one audience member wanted to know), it was somewhat short on reasons changes to the Clinton rule were necessary.

Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, did offer one, affirming that with Montana’s aging population, increased motorized access to public lands “is becoming more and more important every year.”

“Up until this point, all recommendations were conducted and made by the Forest Service,” Hodgeboom said. “But [now] the rule is clear—the intent is for local input and local decisions to carry the heaviest weight rather than these national lobbying organizations.”

Maedje said local interests currently have an 18-month window to deliver proposals to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns.

“We’re hearing from Washington that ‘If you guys don’t want to do it, we don’t want to hear complaints anymore,’” Maedje said.

Ranger Holder suggested that for local input to be effective, those gathered must familiarize themselves with individual environmental analyses, learn the laws and rules that govern Forest Service management and finally, “go look for people that don’t agree with you” in order to be able to show that recommendations are coming from a diverse group, not just one special interest. The environmentalist no-shows at the Eureka meeting who, Jackson says, “saw that they weren’t going to get their way” may ultimately be a liability to local planning progress.

If roadless area management is indeed to work on the local level, it’s going to require a massive effort from individual citizens who will be required to do some of the work the Forest Service has been doing for years—without getting paid for it. It remains to be seen if many of those who showed up to get forest gripes off their chest will be willing to make the time sacrifice necessary to sit down and actually do that work, but as yet another mill closes, more and more former timber employees may have some time on their hands to get involved.

“This is power to the local people,” if the governor wants to pursue it, said Maedje. Given Schweitzer’s recent letter to Bush, that’s a very big if at this point.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” Maedje said. “Nobody’s ever done this, what we’re trying to do.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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