by Scott McMillion, Chronicle Staff Writer
A congressional subcommittee spent three hours Thursday debating a controversial bill that would grant wilderness status to 23 million acres of land in Montana and four other Northern Rockies states. The House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee held the first hearing on the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act since 1994. The bill has major political opposition, in part from Westerners who believe the bill replaces local initiatives with a Washington-driven imperative, like a “missile flying in from afar,” as one opponent put it. But supporters maintained they have science and economics on their side. Folk singer Carole King, an Idaho resident and a longtime wilderness supporter, said the proposed protections would stop wasteful logging practices and create jobs through restoration projects. “It’s not about political boundaries,” King said. “It’s about science.” But Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said, “NREPA threatens the Montana way of making land-management decisions.” He cited two examples—projects on the Blackfoot River and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest—of Montanans working together to decide how to manage lands, using something other than a “mythical, ‘the-way-it-was’ image.” He also said his mailbag was telling him the bill had little support in Montana. After soliciting comments last week, he said 96 percent of 7,100 respondents told him “they think this bill, this idea, this plan, is wrong.”
The Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies is the primary backer of NREPA and executive director Michael Garrity said thousands of individuals and businesses support the bill.
The bill would designate 7 million acres of wilderness in Montana, along with 9.5 million acres in Idaho, 5 million acres in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in easternOregon and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington.
It also would bestow Wild and Scenic River status on 1,800 miles of streams and set up new land-management categories for corridors between wilderness areas.
Those corridors are critical components, according to University of Utah ecologist William Newmark. He said the world is losing a species every two minutes and refuges like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks aren’t big enough. Plus, global warming could force mass movements of wildlife seeking new habitats.
NREPA is an “important and innovative approach to conservation,” he said, because it relies on science instead of political borders. However, political borders underpinned much of the debate. Bruce Vincent, a multiple-use advocate from Libby, agreed that all Americans have a stake in federal land. They also have a stake in crumbling, crime-ridden federal housing projects in the Bronx, he said, but Northern Rockies citizens leave those debates to representatives from that area. NREPA “acts as a scud missile flying in from afar,” he said. The bill has 115 co-sponsors in the U.S. House but none of them are from districts directly affected by the measure. That’s because, King said, “None of them had the vision to sponsor it.” The primary sponsors are Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Shays, R- Conn. The subcommittee took no action on the bill. It will be up to Chairman Rep. Raul, Grijalva, D-N.M. to decide whether to schedule further hearings.