AWR Blog

NREPA: A wilderness bill that works

By Michael Garrity

Originally published in The Missoulian here.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which lives up to its name, would protect the best of the last intact ecosystems and wildlands in the Rockies. For the first time, it has been introduced in the U.S. Senate thanks to Sens. Whitehouse, Boxer, Durbin, Markey, Menendez, Schumer, Shaheen, Stabenow and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

NREPA is a grassroots bill written by scientists and citizens from the Northern Rockies including Missoula’s own Dr. John Craighead and Mike Bader. Craighead was named by the National Geographic as one of the top 100 scientists of the 20th century.

It gives permanent wilderness protection to 23 million acres of America’s premier roadless lands in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

It designates about 1,800 miles of rivers and streams as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Water is the lifeblood of the West and the cleanest, coldest water in the Northern Rockies comes directly from wilderness areas.

It creates thousands of new jobs. Much like the great work done by the revered Civilian Conservation Corps, NREPA puts people to work restoring over 1 million acres of damaged habitat and watersheds by restoring old clearcuts and logging roads. Puts people to work protecting the important wildlife corridors between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks instead of continuing to subsidize their destruction.

It saves taxpayers millions of dollars annually by reducing wasteful subsidies to the logging industry and closes loopholes that left many areas protected by the Clinton Roadless Rule open to clearcutting. For example, the Forest Service has proposed clearcutting in inventoried roadless lands along the continental divide and in the Gallatin National Forest near West Yellowstone.

It battles climate change by protecting the remaining public forests that are some of our nation’s best and most effective tools to reduce global warming. National Forests absorb an astounding 10 percent of the carbon that America creates and unlogged and old growth forests absorb the most carbon.

It reduces species loss and conflict by protecting remaining habitat for native species in the Northern Rockies that were here when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through and are still present 200 years later. The latest science tells us that wildlife populations cannot survive for long periods of time on isolated islands of habitat. Without plentiful habitat populations eventually become genetically weaken and suffer from inbreeding effects. Protecting these lands will help recover threatened and endangered species including bull trout, lynx, and grizzly bears as well as wolverine, fisher and many other species of animals currently facing inbreeding and, ultimately, extinction due to lack of connected corridors. The best place in the world we have a chance of stopping what has been termed the Earth’s “sixth great extinction event” is in western North America but only if we pass an ecosystem bill like NREPA.

It provides landscape-scale protection and connectedness. NREPA is a far better idea than the piecemeal wilderness proposals currently being lauded by groups such as the Montana Wilderness Association. Seeking a few small, isolated wilderness areas and ceding the rest to logging roads and clearcuts is supposed to create more jobs in the timber industry. But history shows the number of timber jobs will continue to decline due to technological advancement. Montana’s wood products industry peaked in 1979 when 11,606 employees cut and milled 1 billion board feet of timber. In 1989, almost 1.3 billion board feet were harvested but only 9,315 people were employed. By 2006, 926 million board feet were cut and milled by 3,524 people. Due to mechanization, in 27 years employment decreased 70 percent while timber production only decreased 7 percent.

In summary, NREPA protects the environment, creates jobs in restoration, and saves taxpayers millions of dollars in logging subsidies simply by designating existing roadless areas as wilderness. That’s why distinguished U.S. senators like Nevada’s Harry Reid have signed on as co-sponsors of S.3022, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. It’s time for Montana’s congressional delegation to face the historical facts of timber production and jobs, quit pushing more money losing logging and road-building, and start supporting the one proposal that promises to give future generations a chance to enjoy the diverse wildlife, clean rivers and majestic forested landscapes that were handed down to all Americans by generations past. Only NREPA does that.

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