A Welcome Change

The Missoula Independent

by Rick Bass

I want to thank Sen. Jon Tester for his work on the forest stewardship bill—or the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act—that embraces wilderness as part of Montana’s badly needed stewardship.

Many of us have been working for wilderness protection for decades in Montana. And many of us have always believed that Montana’s 17 million acres of national forests include both places to provide fiber for local jobs and places to provide solace for wildlife and people.

Over time, people grow weary of intergenerational dead-end conflict. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that in three distinct places, Montanans got together to set past battles aside and seek solutions for local communities and their surrounding forests. The Yaak Valley Forest Council (on whose board I serve as a volunteer) took part in one of those efforts—an effort now being rewarded as part of the bill drafted by Tester.

I support this bill enthusiastically because it is good for the Yaak Valley, a unique place that is special to me personally and, more importantly, vital to the ecology of North America. I support the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act because it is good for Montana, too. It protects the lowest elevation forest in Montana—gnarly, dark, swampy, mosquito-infested wild places like Roderick Mountain. It protects wild places that are the heart of a wild valley that never fails to recharge my spirits and soul when I am in those places.

These are places that, as I grow older, I hope to be able to share with future generations of Montanans. Do I mind that a community has assembled the disparate needs of others into a map of common ground to accomplish this protection? Not in the least. I celebrate it.

These talks—on the Kootenai, and in the Lolo, and on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests—included leaders of snowmobile and ATV clubs, outfitters, mill owners, businesspeople and environmentalists, asking for support and belief in these place-based attempts to map areas of common ground. All participated with one commonality—a commitment to finding a solution, rather than attending to obstruct the attempts.

These earnest and trusting discussions began long before Tester was elected to his current office. These discussions were dismissed as “pipe dreams” by many, though not by anyone with skin in the game. Many of the participants had been involved in similar discussions in previous decades, to no avail, which makes these participants’ most recent efforts all the more courageous and laudable.

Tester is honoring these discussions by packaging them into a bill now up for an even broader debate. Some will want more, others will want less. There remain rough edges to polish, gaps to fill, bolts to tighten. But this effort, and Tester, deserves the support of Montana’s wilderness advocates—and of Montanans in general.

As with any issue concerning national forests—the thing that at the end of the day unites, or has the potential to unite, all Montanans—there will be critics and fears, some intense. But many of the early accusations aimed at the bill are downright ludicrous.

One accusation is the bill has been assembled in secret. This is laughable, given how participants have promoted their community projects, posted websites with proposed drafts of the bill, mailed out brochures, invited comment for years, held open community meetings, asked for input and drove to meet in person the very people who are now claiming falsely to have been excluded. I personally have rolled out the maps and explained the proposal to many of the new critics feigning ignorance.

But as Mark Twain said, a lie goes around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.

On one side, critics say the bill is a Trojan horse by the timber industry, brought in by environmentalists co-opted by the mills. On the other side, critics say the bill is a Trojan horse by environmentalists to destroy the last of our desperate timber mills. I can assure you that there is nothing so cynical or manipulative going on here. It’s really much simpler: Montanans who know the contours of their forests quite well are putting the past behind them, and seeking solutions.

As an environmentalist, I am deeply troubled by these and other false claims that the bill is comprised of anything but integrity. It’s a small bill, true, but a new start—and again, the fact that Tester is willing to devote time and resources to developing a solution for conflicts in Montana, when so much else of the world is in such worse shape, humbles those of us who have been involved in the process since day one.

Regardless of one’s position or beliefs, it is imperative that we represent ourselves honestly and discuss the facts of the proposed legislation, rather than manufacturing untruths to suit political purposes. “Winning” at any cost is not winning. “Winning” without dignity is not winning. It harms Montana and poisons further any future discussions about community and wilderness. And there are many outside of Montana, on both the left and the right, who would love nothing more than to see this legislation fail, for reasons that rarely have anything to do with the health of communities, or wildness.

The point is, we are now just getting started. There is room for improvement. Tester is still requesting input, even from the very people who for years have spurned the proposal’s efforts and invitations.

Some in the press have reported on this legislation in shorthand, calling it a wilderness bill, and certainly, wilderness is at the tiny heart of each of these three initiatives. Wilderness is the seed within the fruit, but the seed is surrounded by the flesh and ethos of restoration—of preserving, in every way, the things that make Montana be Montana. It’s good for wild places like the Yaak, and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and the Seeley-Swan, and it’s good for the grizzlies and elk and trout and people who rely upon those wild places.

The Yaak portion of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act protects all existing core grizzly habitat and old growth in the Yaak—there is even a small increase in the grizzly core, which is absolutely vital for the bear’s survival—while still creating local jobs by thinning some of the fast-dying, overstocked small-diameter trees in the extreme frontcountry, which is at the leading edge of the ecosystem collapse wrought by global warming. Anyone who comes out of their basement long enough to walk the land can see this. As well, the stewardship vegetative treatments—burning, thinning, logging, weeding, culvert replacement, road decommissioning—involved in the project areas will surely be the most-scrutinized treatments on national forests in recent history, as they should be.

Kudos to Tester for being bold enough to act in the face of ecosystem change, species extinction and, not coincidentally, economic distress. Such action is one of Tester’s job descriptions—it’s expected—but that doesn’t mean it’s not appreciated.

There are many champions—everyday heroes and heroines, as well as those at the congressional level—who have laid down the paving stones for the success of this brave and overdue venture, and many Montanans know who they are. Pat Williams, from the old days, is chief among them, but there are many others, too many to name here.

This issue—forestry, wilderness and wildness, and recreation—touches the heart of everyone who lives in this state, as well as everyone who ever will. Of course Tester supports it, and knows it’s the right thing to do.

Still, after 45 years of being denied, we in the Yaak Valley Forest Council cannot help but be amazed. And grateful.

Author and environmentalist Rick Bass splits his time between Missoula and the Yaak, where he has advocated wilderness protection for more than 20 years.