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Amateurish High Jinks on Roadless Areas

Former Montana Congressman

“Its a fine mess you’ve gotten us into again, Stanley.” That famous line from the comedy team Laurel and Hardy is reminiscent of the slapstick political maneuvers of the Bush Administration in its seemingly never-ending struggle to build roads into and develop the last slivers of America’s wild lands.

In a six-year long farcical, on-again-off-again waste of time and taxpayer money, the administration has merrily proceeded down one dead end after another in its whimsical undertaking to undermine the insistence of the American people that our still unroaded public lands remain just as they are-wild.

During the second term of former President Clinton, the U.S. Forest Service conducted the most extensive round of public hearings in American history. It was an historic and refreshing effort to determine the public’s opinion about the fate of the nation’s remaining 58 million acres of unroaded national forests. The process left no doubt about citizen intent. For almost three years at hundreds of hearings, more than a million and a half comments were presented and more than 90% of those supported keeping these lands roadless.

The amateurish high jinks of the current administration began shortly after the swearing in ceremony of George W. Bush. With the sudden announcement that the new president intended to overturn “The Roadless Rule” and at the urging of the extractive industries, the “Rule” was hauled into court. Venue shopping for a friendly judge began. Following several years of legal machinations, an embarrassing loss to Bush before a federal circuit court and on the very eve of a second federal circuit court decision, the White House has rushed to announce its latest convoluted decision.

Following six years of “Keystone Cops” two-wheel careening in and out of legal and administrative side streets, the President’s political operatives at the Forest Service have righted themselves and proposed a solution. The President of the United States has boldly decided that Harry Truman was wrong: the buck doesn’t stop with the president but rather with our state governors. The chief executives of the states, not the President, shall be the new arbiters of our remaining wild national estate.

An embarrassing wrong-headed cop out? Yep! Is it one that will backfire on both the White House and their scriptwriters-most particularly in the mining and oil and gas industries? You bet.

Think about it. With only two possible, although critical, exceptions, the states of Idaho and Alaska, the people and the governors of every other single western state are simply not going to permit the roading and development of the last remaining slivers of wild land within their state. Governor after governor, Republican or Democrat, from New Mexico to Montana and on to the Pacific Coast, has expressed concern with the Bush decision. In the West, this is far more than simply another political policy debate. Ninety-seven percent of those wild lands are in the 12 western states with most of them here in our eight Rocky Mountain States. Our governors know full well that we westerners have a deep visceral respect for the land and those governors are not about to cross a majority of their own state’s citizens.

We all understand that because of access and the flood of campaign money, the mining, oil and big timber companies have one hell of a lot more raw clout in the Congress than they do in the statehouse. Those who want to road, cut and drill these lands will soon learn the hard way that the Bush decision has undercut them rather than the forests. The only exceptions may be, ironically, the only natural riches bonanza the big companies really care about-that’s right-Alaska and Idaho.

Many disagree with this Rube Goldberg proposal which grants governors responsibility over lands on which they have no authority and for which their states do not spend one single nickel, but we also recognize the tragedy of what started out to be a serious real-life drama and is now being played out as political farce.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.