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Trouble at the Gates

Right-wingers take credit for damage on Flathead forest roads

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At KGEZ-AM radio in Kalispell, station owner John Stokes claims to be neither particularly conservative nor a staunch advocate of free speech. “I’m anti-stupidity,” Stokes says. “There was a time when I was younger that I was a Republican or a Libertarian, but now whether it’s Republican or Democrat, if it’s stupid, I’m against it.”

What’s generated controversy recently is the latest target of Stokes’ anti-stupidity campaign: gated Forest Service roads, which according to a widely-circulated email dated Oct. 10, are the result of “federal extreme environmental policies.” In response to the perceived failings of Forest Service policy, Stokes reports that angry residents in the Flathead set about removing federal gates last weekend, having received encouragement over the airwaves and via email. But the extent of the damage—and whether any took place at all—remains uncertain.

The inciting email message, generated anonymously but forwarded liberally by Stokes, outlines what he calls the G.O.D. campaign: “Citizens fed up with the federal land closures and locked gates ... will be permanently and manually opening as many federal Forest Service locked gates as possible October 20, 21, and 22. No committees just citizens. They encourage all folks around the country to do the same if they are of the same attitude. This is a region-wide civil protest and the gates are being opened now in the dark of nite without fanfare. It’s time. Just do it and shut up.”

The campaign, which Stokes supports but claims no responsibility for, has been promoted on his call-in radio show “The Edge,” running from 8 to 11 a.m. weekdays. “I’m against the Greens because I’m for separation of church and state, and what these people are advocating for is a religion,” Stokes states. “These Green Nazis are nothing more then modern Marxists and Communists. This campaign is happening all across the country. We’ve gotten messages from people in Virginia and Wisconsin. The acronym is called G.O.D.—gate opening days—and the acronym hasn’t been used much in the mainstream media. But I am not opposed to G.O.D.”

While one might wonder at Stokes’ inflammatory rhetoric on God and politics, the shock-jock says his effectiveness in whipping up anti-Forest Service fervor in the Flathead Valley can’t be denied. “When I showed up at the station this morning, someone had left a box of gate parts for me,” Stokes claims. “Across the country hundreds of gates have been ripped out. I’ve had at least three calls this morning to report gates that have been shot out, ripped up, or otherwise removed.”

The radio show and the email prompted director of the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads Bethanie Walder to draft a letter to the law enforcement division of the U.S. Forest Service. Several other local environmental groups signed onto the letter, which asks the Forest Service to uphold federal law and make its presence known in areas where gates may be removed.

“The problem with this type of rhetoric is that unless it is met with strong resistance within the community, and a strong presence by law enforcement, the vocal minority sees no reason why they shouldn’t destroy gates and re-open roads that have been closed for the benefit of all of us, including wildlife,” says Walder. “These people talk about no access, which isn’t true. They have the same access as everyone else, which is on foot. It’s the vehicles that the Forest Service has determined don’t belong in certain places on the national forest.”

The Forest Service, however, seems significantly less impressed with last weekend’s events. “As of [Monday] afternoon, I’m not aware of any gates that were destroyed over the weekend by hunters or anyone else,” says Region I Forest Service law enforcement spokesman Roger Seewald. “We can’t do anything until we find evidence that something has happened. Perhaps [Stokes’] listeners are a little more intelligent than he gives them credit for.”

From a hunter’s perspective, Dave Ditloff of the Montana Wildlife Federation points out that hunters who do open or remove gates are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. “Montana is one of the few states left where virtually everyone who applies for an elk tag gets one,” he says. “These gates provide habitat security for big game. The average hunter understands that, and the vast majority of hunters are out there on foot, not on an ORV [off-road vehicle] or hunting on roads. It seems to me that these folks have some other philosophical disagreements with Forest Service issues. That’s fine, but to open gates that are there to protect habitat isn’t going to help. Populations of deer and elk will suffer.”

Still, Ditloff agrees that the damage done so far, if any, is hard to assess. “There are gates torn out every hunting season,” he notes. “We aren’t sure if it’s more or less than usual, but we are definitely keeping an eye on them.”

In the end, regardless of whether or how many gates were vandalized, the rhetoric behind last weekend’s G.O.D. campaign seems to have been enough to cause concern among local environmental groups. “These people talk about rights,” Walder says. “But where in the Constitution does it guarantee the right to drive your ORV wherever you please on federal land, especially at the expense of the greatest benefit to everyone else?

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