The great Montana land grab


UNLESS something happens to stop it, the native forests of the northern Rockies are about to be laid waste by developers subsidized by the U.S. government. These National Forest wildlands, owned by all Americans, are the most pristine lands left in the "lower" 48 states. They are also the scene of a modern-day land grab of immense proportions.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in a vote taken just before midnight, passed the DanFunschMontana National Forest Management Act. Sponsored by Montana Sens. Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Conrad Burns, a Republican, the bill is designed to protect from logging and road building those forest lands that haven't been designated as wilderness areas.

Imagine a pristine wilderness twice the size of Yellowstone National Park handed over to multi-national corporations for private profit. Imagine these forests leveled within a few years -- at taxpayers' expense.

What's at stake? Over 6 million acres of Montana's National Forest wilderness lands have yet to be added to the national wilderness system. The Burns-Baucus bill would protect only about 1.2 million acres, handing the rest over to corporate barons.

These lands are unroaded and undeveloped, but they are threatened by clearcut logging, road building, mining and oil and gas drilling. They are home to grizzly bears, gray wolves, woodland caribou, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, bull trout and a host of other species found in few other places in the country.

The headwaters of three major river systems are in the northern Rockies. The last intact mountain forest ecosystems are found here, as well as America's most popular outdoor areas, including Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and surrounding wildlands. Millions of Americans visit the northern Rockies each year. Yet the interests of these people, who own these National Forests equally, were not weighed in the committee vote.

Also at stake is the public's right to be involved in decisions regarding lands which belong to the public. According to the senators and their staffs, new language prepared for this bill restricts citizens' rights to challenge development actions such as logging, roadbuilding and mining on public lands. This language was drafted by a timber industry lawyer. The bill also would do away with the requirement that the Forest Service complete environmental impact statements to assess potential ecological damage before logging is allowed in roadless areas.

The U.S. Forest Service, in bed with the timber industry, has planned thousands of miles of new logging roads and clearcuts in the lands covered by the bill. The public will pay for these costly roads at the rate of $50,000 to $100,000 each mile.

There is an alternative to the Baucus-Burns approach. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, endorsed by more than 170 organizations and businesses, would protect roadless lands, rivers and wildlife corridors. It would also establish a Wildlands Recovery System to create jobs restoring and rehabilitating lands that have been damaged by overcutting and excessive road building. It would protect the pristine forests and waters of the northern Rockies, leaving a wildland legacy for future generations.

Dan Funsch is program assistant of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Missoula, Mont.

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