by Mike Bader
Missoulian Guest Editorial
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” These words admonish us to beware those who wrap themselves in the flag while actively working to undermine the most treasured values and ideals it represents. “To defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” are other familiar words, part of an oath of service I took very seriously while a national park ranger at Yellowstone, even when it entailed hazardous and depressing duties such as law enforcement, firefighting, medical aid and search and rescue.
Frankly, I am disgusted when someone says I am un-American because I support protection of roadless areas and recovery of species threatened with extinction.
Recent events in our region give pause for concern. Witness the recycled Sagebrush Rebellion, which has reincarnated itself as the “Shovel Brigade.” It has reorganized itself around opposition to roadless areas, imperiled species such as the bull trout and the concept of public land in general. It publicly uses patriotic rhetoric to advance its cause, but its track record suggests a disdain for our democratic process and an unsavory approach to civic discourse.
This band of anti-federal extremists has gained new life in recent months by using the bull trout, federal employees, the National Forest Roadless Initiative and public lands as their whipping boys. They effectively ran Gloria Flora out of her job as a National Forest supervisor in Nevada with their threats and intimidation tactics. They portray themselves as helpless victims while harassing federal employees and seeking to privatize our public lands for their own use. They have their shills in Congress who hold “field hearings” which could easily be mistaken by the casual observer for an inquisition or a prelude to a lynching.
Closer to home, anti-grizzly bear reactionaries have used boisterous tactics to influence the public comment record on the proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem. These tactics have led the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to withhold the identities of persons who commented on the proposal, citing fear of violence as their excuse to sequester the public comment record away from public view.
At a recent public hearing in Kalispell on the roadless initiative, opponents loudly booed and interrupted speakers giving testimony in support of the plan, while offering little of substance to support their own views.
The message is clear: With such ugly forces at play, we can ill afford to be complacent. Moreover, this challenge will not be won by the silent majority. In our participatory democracy, if you do not speak, you will not be heard.
I’ve often taken issue with Forest Service policies and decisions. Can it be frustrating to deal with the Forest Service? Yes. Does positive change occur quickly enough to suit me? Never. However, we can give credit to Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, who has put forth the National Forest Roadless Initiative for public comment and involvement, and to Senator Max Baucus, who made a well-reasoned decision to support it.
This historic proposal holds great importance to the future of our region’s fish, wildlife, clean water, wildlands and quality of life.
The National Forest Roadless Initiative could ultimately protect the remaining roadless wildlands in our region, and be part of a giant move forward in the conservation policy America is developing for the 21st Century.
Ironically, the timber industry, a major backer of the Shovel Brigade, is now orchestrating a backlash to the roadless initiative by claiming it is an imperialistic land grab by President Clinton designed to deliberately harm rural communities. Ironic, because when Clinton first took office, he signed into law the infamous Salvage Logging Rider, commonly known as “logging without laws,” described by The Washington Post as “arguably the worst piece of federal lands legislation ever.”
Basically, the timber industry got a free ride on the National Forests without the threat of appeals and lawsuits from the citizen owners of these National Forests. We got a good preview of how land management would take place under the timber industry’s plan. Logging without laws was almost certainly unconstitutional, and the American public responded with a deafening “no.”
President Clinton, being the astute politician that he is, heard the American people and he nodded “yes” when the Forest Service began the roadless initiative. Having learned his lesson, this time the administration asked the American people what they think. According to Forest Service sources, the roadless initiative has generated over half a million public comments, making it the largest public comment record in the history of land management. Moreover, several national opinion polls show overwhelming support for the roadless initiative.
Politicians and opinion leaders should not be swayed by the phony backlash.
Those who wave industry-purchased shovels alongside Old Glory, while at the same time shouting down majority rule, either don’t understand the constitutional brilliance of the founding fathers or, worse, they don’t support it. Our nation of laws, enacted through a democratic process, gives access to the public but doesn’t guarantee everybody everything they want.
Moreover, our system of checks and balances with three branches of government means there will be citizen lawsuits to protect the environment, including threatened species like the bull trout, there will be proposals from the executive branch, and congress will also make its voice heard. Its sometimes messy and inefficient but, as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
The modern conservation era is barely a century old, yet it has much to offer posterity. Wise is the culture that can stay its own hand when need be. The failure to do so has been the downfall of countless civilizations and regimes. As we make the transition to a new century, there is cause for cautious optimism that we are learning from our mistakes and pushing for adoption of sound land management plans based on stewardship, a sense of obligation and respect. The National Forest Roadless Initiative could move us toward a conservation policy that will once again put America at the forefront of the world scene as a global innovation leader.
But don’t take it for granted these things will happen just because it’s what most folks want. When forest supervisors are run out of their jobs due to fear of violence, public comment records are squelched due to fear of violence, and the will of the vast majority is stymied due to fear of violence, it is clear that civility itself is on trial.
Our ongoing experiment in participatory democracy is threatened when responsible discourse, the rule of law and fair and open public process are thwarted by those willing to use intimidation and threats to achieve their unpopular goals.
We’re told from early childhood that calling names gets you nowhere. Or does it? The future is watching. Raise your voice. Ultimately, much more is at stake than trees. Let the sound of freedom ring.