AWR Blog

by Mike Bader

Wild Earth Magazine
Winter 1998-99

Wilderness Revival—Campaigns

The Northern Rockies region of the US – a land of great beauty and diversity – contains virtually the entire native biota that existed at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Free-roaming populations of grizzly bear, wolf, caribou, lynx, wolverine, and the last wild bison enrich the landscape. Native salmon, bull trout, cutthroat and steelhead grace the waters. Yet many of these natives, and the wild landscapes on which they depend, continue to dwindle under the onslaught of modern civilization.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) is the first legislation to frame wilderness protection in a bioregional context and contains an array of designations that would work in concert to effect ecosystem protection in the US Northern Rockies. In the 105th Congress, NREPA reached a new high in congressional sponsorship with 72 sponsors [in the 106th Congress the number has exceeded this high, current cosponsors].

The product of numerous grassroots organizations and conservation scientists, the NREPA concept emerged in the midst of the wilderness wars of the 1980’s, an era dominated by the state by state Wilderness bill process. This parochial approach usually relegated formally protected Wilderness Areas to the highest, most rugged landscapes, largely exclusive of the prime forest habitat at the mid and lower elevations. These bills were an exercise in “local control,” whereby the timber, mining, and grazing industries maximized their influence over the outcome while entirely dismissing the national public trust at stake in the future of these federal lands.

NREPA changes the focus: rather than viewing the land as a pie to be divided up by the extractive industries, it is considered as a functioning ecological entity. NREPA de-emphasizes arbitrary political lines to encompass ecological systems.

The different land management strategies contained within NREPA are designed to maintain functioning ecosystems in the US Northern Rockies:

  • Extensive new designated Wilderness would protect roadless areas, the foundation of effective ecosystem protection. (The Wilderness Act remains the only law that specifically protects roadless areas.)
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers designation would protect more than 1,800 miles of free-flowing streams- prohibiting dam-building and thus maintaining the ability of these waters to support migratory native fish.
  • A system of habitat linkage corridors are designated to connect increasingly isolated areas.
    A pilot system of Wildland Recovery Areas are designated to recover damaged areas and restore their role in supporting ecosystem health.
  • Two areas are proposed for study as possible additions to the National Park System.
  • In all, more than 20 million acres (>140,000 sq. km.) of federal public lands would be affected, greatly expanding the network of protected natural areas in this bioregion.

Originally described as “an important first step in an overall conservation strategy” (Bader 1991), NREPA is a federal public lands protection bill, not a comprehensive reserve system design based on all lands, regardless of ownership or management. As such, there are limits to what it can do. Congressional legislation must be limited to the area over which Congress has jurisdiction. Thus, NREPA stops at the US/Canadian border; other advocacy efforts span the international line. We are blessed with a wealth of public lands in the Northern Rockies. NREPA will allow us to build a foundation for ecosystem protection while we gain additional information and develop strategies for enhancing protection of habitat on private lands.

Biodiversity conservation at the landscape level encompasses thousands of species, many of which we know little or nothing about. For practical reasons, we focus our conservation plans on a few species that serve as indicators of ecosystem health and integrity. Within the wild Rockies, the grizzly bear and the bull trout, indicators of healthy terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, respectively, are target species. Protecting habitat for these umbrella species, which are both wide-ranging, slow-breeding species highly sensitive to habitat degradation, should lead to protection for hundreds of other less-sensitive species.

A vast body of knowledge gained through scientific research provides a sound basis for NREPA. Many of these findings have been summarized by Bader and Bechtold (1996,1997) and at official congressional testimony on behalf of NREPA by Dr. John Craighead and Dr. Lee Metzgar (1994). For example, the management language pertaining to the biological corridors is informed by the work of numerous scientists who have studied the impacts of roads on grizzly bears and other wildlife (Mattson 1993, Craighead, Sumner, and Mitchell 1995).

Work by regional NREPA supporters has shown that the minimum area requirements for a regional metapopulation of grizzly bears is 50,000 square miles or more (Metzgar and Bader 1992). Since none of the core areas are large enough to provide this habitat area, linkage corridors are proposed in order to support a regional metapopulation.

Research on bull trout, our aquatic umbrella species, has documented the importance of roadless watersheds, high quality water, and connectivity between populations to the survival of the species.

While NREPA is continually refined to add more areas and incorporate new findings prior to each reintroduction in Congress, supporting scientific research is ongoing. Fine-tuning of the bill is necessary to adequately represent all ecosystem types; to this end, Title VI of NREPA establishes an interagency scientific team, including private sector scientists, who will create a Geographic Information System to define further protection needs, conduct research to monitor implementation of the act, and detect landscape changes – both positive and negative. Based on their findings, a report will be made available including recommendations for additional protection measures. Region-wide, fine-detail studies are beyond the scope of most non-profit organizations. Such studies are already a legal responsibility of the federal government pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Forest Management Act, and other laws. Our job is not to assume government duties but rather to guide the government in appropriate management.

NREPA has also gained support due to its strong economic foundation. Studies by University of Utah economist Michael Garrity (1997) show that NREPA would create more than 2000 new jobs through wildland restoration work while saving US taxpayers more than $100 million dollars over a ten year period by ending timber sales in roadless areas. An earlier report by Dr. Thomas Power (1992), chair of the University of Montana economics department, shows that enactment of NREPA would have a minimal effect on regional timber industry employment.

It is important to stress that NREPA is not a stand-alone effort. NREPA works in unison with other conservation strategies. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies conservation network actively works all three branches of the public process and the fourth estate to gain support for a broad range of wildlife protection. Working through the judicial branch, we were recently successful in obtaining an Endangered Species Act listing for the bull trout, covering parts of five states from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide. We are also pursuing litigation on behalf of grizzly bear habitat and to challenge the exploitation of thermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Through the administrative branch we have applied many of NREPA’s concepts to the Conservation Biology Alternative for grizzly bear reintroduction in the greater Salmon-Selway ecosystem. This plan has been included as Alternative 4 in the US Fish and Wildlife Service draft Environmental Impact Statement and received more public support at seven public hearings than any other alternative. Another effort through the administrative process includes petitioning for species listing under the ESA. We have also been actively involved in encouraging the proposed road-building moratorium on National Forest roadless areas. NREPA, of course, works through the legislative branch. The fourth branch, the general public and media, addressed through public outreach, educational publications, the news media, and advertisements.

It is crucial to have a broad strategy to achieve conservation goals. Expecting on bill to carry the water for all issues is unrealistic and strategically counterproductive. Moreover, by using several existing federal laws and approaches, we can achieve what legal scholar Rober Keiter has described as a de facto body of “ecosystem law” (Keiter 1994).

As important as having a broad strategy is de-politicizing the process to whatever extent as possible. NREPA is sponsored by a bi-partisan coalition of House members led by Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act embodies the major goal of the conservation movement- healthy landscapes for humans and wildlife. It’s a blueprint for where we want to see federal land management go, and it serves as a measuring stick that the public can use to judge the adequacy of government sponsored initiatives. Grassroots advocates in the wild Rockies bioregion are gearing up for a major push for NREPA in the 106th Congress, focusing on gaining hearings for the bill and obtaining more than 100 official sponsors. In an era of extreme anti-conservation leadership in the US Congress, it is a testament to NREPA’s vision that support for this legislation continues to grow.

Mike Bader is executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies (POB 8731, Missoula, MT 59807; ). Contact AWR to receive a free, full-color brochure on NREPA, including map.


Bader, M. and T. Bechtold. 1997. Legislating reserve design: The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and conservation advocacy. Abstract, from presentation at annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (1997):76.

Bader, M. and T. Bechtold. 1996. A Northern Rockies reserve system for grizzly bears and other wildlife. Abstract from presentation at Montana Academy of Sciences symposium. Intermountain Journal of Sciences 2(2):33.

Bader, M. 1991. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act: A citizen plan for wildlands management. Western Wildlands 17(2):22-28.

Craighead, J.J. 1994. Testimony before a joint committee hearing on the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, May 4, 1994. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, ISBN O-16046101-4. pp.70-72.

Craighead, J.J., J.S. Sumner, and J.A. Mitchell. 1995. The Grizzly Bears of Yellowstone: Their Ecology in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. 1959-1992. Washington, DC: Island Press, 535 pp.

Garrity, M. 1997. Economic Analysis of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. Salt Lake City: University of Utah, Department of Economics. 24 pp.

Keiter, R. 1994. Beyond the boundary line: Constructing a law of ecosystem management. University of Colorado Law Review 65(2):293-333.

Mattson, D.J. 1993. Background and Proposed Standards for Managing Grizzly Bear Habitat Security in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Moscow: University of Idaho, College of Forestry, Wildlife and Range Sciences. 17pp.

Metzgar, L.H. 1994. Testimony before joint committee hearing on the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, May 4, 1994. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, ISBN 0-16-046101-4. pp. 77-80.

Metzgar, L.H. and M. Bader. 1992. Large mammal predators in the Northern Rockies: Grizzly bears and their habitat. Northwest Environmental Journal 8(1):231-233.

Power, T.M. 1992. The Timber Employment Impact of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Executive summary. Missoula: University of Montana. 8 pp.



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