NOTE: The following perspective is from Brian Peck, an Independent Wildlife Consultant and grizzly bear expert, from Columbia Falls, Montana.
More than 70 years ago Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of modern ecological principles had the following to say about Wilderness:
“Wilderness is a resource which can shrink, but not grow. Invasions can be arrested or modified in a manner to keep an area useable for recreation, or for science, or for wildlife, but the creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible. It follows, then, that any wilderness program is a rearguard action, through which retreats are reduced to a minimum…
Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right… A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Unfortunately, these foundational ecological principles have either been forgotten or ignored by Senator Tester and those who support his ill-advised and destructive S. 1470, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2009. This dangerous anti-conservation measure is misguided both for the immediate damage it would do, and for the damaging precedents it would set for the future.
Specific Concerns & Comments:
1. In its development, the Tester Logging Without Laws Bill bypasses the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Forest Management Act, and Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Thus, while all federal agencies are required to abide by these laws in developing a land management plan, Senator Tester’s bill essentially says, “Close enough for government work.”
Nor does the provision that later site specific projects must comply with all laws help much, since that’s a bit like trying to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped – and the precedent of looking the other way if you’re a U.S. Senator pandering for votes, has been set.
2. If approved, this bill would set aside just over 600,000 acres of Wilderness, withdraw current protection from nearly 250,000 acres, and require that 100,000 acres be made available for logging and roading in an already fractured landscape. This is a “deal with the Devil” that we will regret, and have to fight to overcome, for years, if not decades.
The Tester bill mandates the logging of 7000 acres per year (X 10 years) on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) despite the fact that the Forest Plan currently sets 500 acres as the sustainable cut, and the forest has never cut more than 2800 acres in a year. Why would any environmental group in their right mind sanction a cut of 14 times the sustainable level? The Tester bill mandates the cutting of 3000 acres per year (X 10 years) in the Yaak portion of the Kootenai National Forest, a forest that already looks like a moonscape in many areas from decades of USFS abuse. I have worked for 15 years to try and save the imperiled 30-40 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in a landscape where the Cores are too small, the Buffers are over-logged and roaded, and the Linkages are non-existent. How is another 30,000 acres of logging not going to be the last nail in this grizzly population’s coffin?
The absurd inclusion of 100,000 acres of mandated logging suggests that Tester, and some “environmental” groups, believe that Congress can mandate an area’s ecology. If Plum Creek Timber were spouting such nonsense, we’d be howling in protest. And in fact, some real environmental groups have been fighting such congressionally mandated logging for 30 years. Now their efforts will be sabotaged by Tester and his “collaborators.” Disgraceful.
Some have suggested that the lack of funding and merchantable timber on the BDNF means these acres will not be cut, and so it’s no big deal. However, they miss the fundamental point that a damaging precedent of lawless logging, devoid of science will have been set, and the environmental community’s fingerprints will be all over it.
Others claim that the bill focuses logging and roading on forest landscapes that have already been entered in previous decades. But, if this is true, then why is there any need to strip Roadless or Wilderness Study Area of their current protection? The answer should be obvious. The lumber companies aren’t cheering this bill because they hope to harvest a bunch of 40 year-old toothpicks, and the USFS/BLM tend to deliver what the logging companies want.
Finally, even the 600,000+ acres theoretically protected by this bill are WINO – Wilderness In Name Only. Tester’s bill contains loophole language that would allow motorized use for “wildlife management” – known as the “Wolf Control Clause” in Idaho – and for the herding of livestock; and military operations and low elevation flights in and over “wilderness.” And in Special Recreation Management Areas, timber harvest “consistent with the Wilderness Act.” There’s no such thing – until now.
3. Apologists for the Tester bill note that road densities on the BDNF will drop from the current 4-5 miles per square mile to 1.5 miles per square mile. While this is certainly an improvement, those of us who’ve spent 15-20 years working on wolf and grizzly conservation know that entire landscapes at 1.5 mi./sq.mi. are simply not survivable by either species. But, since the primary goals of the Tester bill are logging, jobs, and motorized recreation, who cares what actual science shows.
4. Those touting this giveaway to industrial and motorized interests are quick to trumpet the Wilderness acres protected, but nowhere do we find a similar honest accounting of the WSA/Roadless acres to be sacrificed. Nonetheless, it’s clear that releases in just three areas will total more than 200,000 acres. For example, although the West Pioneers WSA totals 151,000 acres, 125,000 acres (83%) will be released, while a paltry 26,000 will become Wilderness. And, on Bureau of Land Management WSA’s, another 76,000 acres will be released, while in the Sapphire Mountains WSA, 8,000 acres will be lost. And once they’re gone, these acres will never again be Roadless, WSA’s, or Wilderness – “Wilderness is a resource that can shrink, but not grow…”
In addition, Tester’s Logging Without Laws Bill would override and remove the current protections of the Clinton Roadless Rule and the Obama Roadless Initiative, with the bill’s maps indicating that about 1 million acres on the BDNF alone would be classified as “suitable for timber development.”
To make matters worse, these abandoned protected areas are part of the absolutely critical linkage zones spanning the gap between the Greater Salmon Selway Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone. For two decades, these public lands have been repeatedly identified by NGO’s, USFS, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as key to reweaving the ecological web between wolf and grizzly recovery areas, and breaking their genetic and demographic isolation. When Yellowstone to Yukon talks about connecting Cores and Buffers with landscape level Linkage Zones, these are some of the lands they’re specifically talking about – lands some “conservationists” are now willing to sacrifice. When wolves were recently relisted by federal court order, one of the reasons was the lack of movement between the three wolf recovery areas – something that Tester’s bill is about to make even more difficult.
5. Bob Wolf who helped write NFMA, and Paul Richards, an area native, former state legislator, and long-time member of the Deerlodge National Forest Technical Advisory Committee have noted that most of the BDNF has little commercially viable timber, and requires an average subsidy of $1400 per acre to get lumber companies to cut there. Yet the Tester bill requires the forest to cut 7000 acres per year for ten years in the middle of a massive recession, with a decimated housing market, and a glut of unsold timber already available. At $1400 per acre, that’s a cost to you and me, the taxpayer, of $98,000,000 for lumber no one wants, with the dollars going straight into the pockets of logging companies that have fought Wilderness for decades. What we have in the Tester bill, therefore, is a misguided plan that is economically, scientifically, and environmentally bankrupt. What are “conservationists” doing supporting far-reaching legislation that simultaneously undermines ecosystem health, undermines real Wilderness protection, and funds traditional Wilderness opponents in the process??
6. Tester would have us believe that most logging would take place in areas that have been previously entered, and use primarily “temporary” roads. However, as someone who has worked on wolf and grizzly conservation for more than 15 years, I can tell you that such claims are pure delusion. First, as we all know, “temporary” roads on USFS/BLM lands have a way of becoming permanent. Second, there’s no limit on the miles of temporary road that can be built. How many miles of roads do you think it will take to conduct logging on the required 100,000 acres, or enter the additional 200,000 WSA acres about to be released? Third, 20 years of research in the Rockies clearly demonstrates that even “temporary” roads result in long-term displacement of grizzlies from key habitats, or their mortality in proximity to those roads. Same thing for wolves. Same thing for elk. Finally, decades of hard experience throughout Montana has repeatedly shown that in “Stewardship” projects of this type, the logging gets funded, but the restoration never happens. Not surprisingly, the Tester bill only mandates the logging – not the restoration.
7. Under the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977 (S. 393) WSA’s are to be managed in such a manner as to preserve their Wilderness characteristics. Any existing motorized use, for example, is to stay at the same numbers and geographic scope as before the WSA designation. However, as most of you know, the U.S. Forest Service over the last 30+ years has looked the other way as one illegal expansion of motorized use after another took place.
The solution, for those guided by ecological principles rather than political expediency, is to stop these intrusions, roll them back to legal 1977 levels, and restore the integrity of the WSA’s. However, the Tester bill, and the “conservationists” who support it, would grandfather in the law breaking and ecological damage, and enshrine their capitulation in a 129,252 acre National Recreation Area in the West Pioneers open to mountain bikes and motorized use. If environmental groups won’t stand up for environmental protection and environmental laws, then who will??
8. At a recent meeting of the Flathead Conservation Roundtable, a representative of Trout Unlimited made the amazing statement that “It’s really important that ‘Jon’ (Tester) succeed with this bill”, presumably so that environmentalists could have a chance at real Wilderness at some unspecified point in the future – maybe – someday – trust us.
After nearly 40 years of working in the environmental field, I was under the impression (apparently wrong) that our job was to stand up for ecosystem integrity, maximize Wilderness protection, and minimize habitat destroying retreats – Not to put one in Senator Tester’s “win column.”
Senators and Representatives respond to groups that they respect, desperately need for re-election, or fear. The capitulation of some “conservationists” on the Tester bill promotes none of the above, but rather, suggests that we’re weak, won’t stand up for our principles, and can be bought off with a few crumbs swept from the Wilderness table. Why would any Senator in his right mind stick his neck out later to produce a real Wilderness bill for such groups? By signing on to the Tester bill, “conservationists” are telling him that he’s got us in the bag; that we feel we have no choice but to support him; and that he has nothing to fear from us come election time – All death sentences for any chance of true Wilderness down the road.
Environmental writer Ed Abbey once said, “Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders”, and Brock Evans with the Endangered Species Coalition advised that the secret to winning “impossible” environmental battles was “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” For those who seem to have missed this wisdom and who are enamored with the Tester bill, I wish you a speedy and early return to ecological sanity.
Brian Peck is an Independent Wildlife Consultant and grizzly bear expert. He writes from Columbia Falls, Montana.