The big wild: A wilderness bill finally gets traction in Congress

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The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) is up for a congressional hearing this week. Besides being one of the few bills in years that has an honest title, it also has 115 co-sponsors, nearly a quarter of Congress, on board. So far, Montana’s congressional Democrats have lamed out on supporting the measure, which would protect millions of acres of Montana’s dwindling backcountry with wilderness designation. Meanwhile, Denny Rehberg, our lone Republican representative to the U.S. House, has apparently slipped into a time machine and is now parroting the failed, 20-year old rhetoric of Conrad Burns in his vehement opposition to the bill.

Perhaps the unique thing about NREPA is that it was designed not on a state-by-state or forest-by-forest basis, but on a true landscape-ecosystem level. The bill itself has been around for almost 20 years and last had a congressional hearing in 1994. And for all those years, advocates for the bill have been saying exactly the same thing—that protecting the watersheds, wildlife corridors, and roadless lands makes sense for their intrinsic value to our society.

Want to save grizzly bears? Then you have to provide wilderness corridors where the bears can travel between their distinct genetic groups to keep the gene pool healthy enough to stave off eventual extinction. Or how about cutthroat trout? Montana is spending millions of dollars poisoning wilderness lakes right now so they can plant them with cutthroat and perhaps avoid the inevitable restrictions the Endangered Species Act would impose as these native fish slip ever closer to the edge. What they really need, however, is what NREPA provides—the restoration of the cold, clean waterways in which they thrive, waterways which have been degraded by road building, eroded ATV trails, logging, and mining to the point where they can no longer maintain the water quality required to sustain the cutthroat trout or its equally imperiled relative, the bull trout.

With the opening of our big-game season just days away, those of us who hunt the magnificent elk to feed our families might just want to consider the benefits wilderness provides. Montana’s wildlands are literally elk factories, and provide the only place where these noble beasts find sanctuary from the hordes of motorized road hunters. Without wilderness, you can rest assured our five-week hunting season would quickly be reduced as elk numbers faded away.

Plus, with global warming savagely impacting Montana’s natural resource base through lower snow packs, warmer winters, extended drought, and sizzling, triple-digit summers, our water supplies for both domestic and agricultural needs are being exceeded on a regular basis. The result? Our world-famous rivers are closed to fishing for months on end as reduced flows and increased temperatures pound our equally famous wild fish stocks. Meanwhile, our cities and ranchers look anxiously to their reservoirs, wondering if they’ll fill, if the rivers will flow, if they have water rights that will survive the ever-increasing demand and shrinking supply. Wilderness, as it turns out, is the source of virtually all of Montana’s pure, clean water.

NREPA, in a nutshell, does all the right things to protect what really matters to Montana’s future. It formalizes the already de facto wilderness of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks and requires the removal and restoration of some 6,000 miles of roads throughout Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. Besides putting thousands to work at high-paying restoration jobs, it reduces the impacts to rivers and streams and actually speeds up the recovery time of the threatened and endangered species throughout the region.

So why would anyone oppose such a worthwhile, far-sighted, and beneficial measure? Good question. If you ask Denny Rehberg, he’ll tell you his opposition is because it’s been introduced by representatives from the eastern United States and he thinks it’s a “top down” measure rather than locally-generated. Pretty funny coming from a guy who supports the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, which were nothing if not top down.

Those with long memories, however, will recall what happened to the last locally generated wilderness bill back in 1989. After the historic Kootenai Accords were reached between Montana’s wilderness advocates and timber mill operators, the bill sailed through Congress. But that was the year Conrad Burns was running for the U.S. Senate and then-President Reagan vetoed the bill, giving Burns an electoral victory while sacrificing Montana’s wildlands—and the locally-produced agreement.

Burns went on to promise that he would address the wilderness issue in a more equitable fashion, but as the years went by, that promise fell by the wayside and he never even introduced a concept for solving Montana’s wilderness issue, let alone a bill. Now Rehberg is trying to get some miles out of the old Burns retread, again waving the flag of provinciality while providing no concrete solution whatsoever.

This time around, however, things have changed.

Just this week the New York Times reported on wealthy entrepreneurs who are now flocking to live and play in Montana—rather than log and mine. Backing up years of study by UM’s Larry Swanson and others, our experience these days shows that proximity to national parks, wilderness areas, and natural amenities are driving factors in Montana’s new economy—just the opposite of Rehberg’s assertions.

More site-specific information on NREPA can be found at and testimony can be submitted for the next 10 days to the House Committee on Natural Resources at It would also help to let Max Baucus and Jon Tester know just how many of their constituents support NREPA and ask them to join the effort.

Montanans don’t get many chances to weigh in on new wilderness—but we have one now. They don’t call Montana the “Last Best Place” for nothing, and as the rest of the nation’s natural landscapes vanish beneath asphalt and cement, what we have here only becomes more precious. NREPA is a worthy concept whose time has come. Let’s strike while the iron is hot.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at



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