Thinking Big in the Northern Rockies

Every season, citizens of the world thank those who had the courage and foresight to designate Yellowstone, Glacier, Bob Marshall, Absaroka-Beartooth and other national parks and wilderness areas. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in Montana bear the names of conservation heroes dedicated to protecting public wildlands.

National parks, wilderness areas, and other wildlands are the engines that drive the economy of the northern Rockies states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. People want to live here because they love being close to wildlands and wildlife.

What makes Montana Montana? Idaho Idaho? Wyoming Wyoming? In addition to designated parks and wilderness, the Northern Rockies contain millions of acres of unprotected and undesignated roadless wildlands.

In addition to scenic beauty, these pristine public wildlands provide clean water for our cities and farms, unrivaled fishing and hunting, and the world’s best educational and recreational opportunities. Kept unmolested, they guarantee the region’s economic future and environmental health.

These public wildlands must be kept in “as is” condition. This land was wild 100 years ago, it must be wild 100 years hence. Thankfully, legislation before Congress (H.R. 1975) retains the status quo for these wildlands. First written over 22 years ago by the world’s leading conservation biologists, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, or NREPA, brings common sense to national forest issues.

Instead of continuing millions in logging subsidies that destroy our public wildlands, NREPA protects roadless wildlands, establishes biological corridors between them, and provides good jobs by restoring wildlands previously damaged by logging and roadbuilding.

The chairman of the University of Montana’s Economics Department has repeatedly stated that the greatest economic values associated with our region’s wildlands lie in maintaining their wildness. They are only going to become more valuable as the years go by.

Populations in those counties with public wildlands are growing in leaps and bounds. McMansions are going up everywhere. Just ask any realtor about the extremely high value of land adjacent to Forest Service land. On the other hand, data show those counties without public wildlands are losing population.

With such a massive boom in private land development, it becomes imperative to better manage our public lands. NREPA will protect 7 million acres of wilderness in Montana, 9.5 million acres of wilderness in Idaho, 5 million acres of wilderness in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in eastern Oregon, and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington. Included in this total is over 3 million acres in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.

When NREPA is passed, over 1 million acres and 6,300 miles of unused roads will be restored to roadless conditions, providing employment for 2,100 workers. NREPA will save taxpayers at least $245 million that would otherwise be spent subsidizing logging these unprotected roadless areas.

NREPA contains no designation regarding any private land and does not affect grazing leases.

Under NREPA, the Northern Rockies future is assured. Like Glacier and Yellowstone, these public wildlands will become financial cornerstones for those communities lucky enough to be nearby.

Prominent outdoors writer Bill Schneider has computed that NREPA protects less than one percent of the five-state Northern Rockies region. After passage of NREPA, Schneider estimates that 95 percent or more of our federal lands will remain non-wilderness.

Last year, 188 members of Congress sponsored NREPA, the most sponsors of any wilderness bill in the history of the Wilderness Act, but the bill went nowhere due to hostility from the House leadership.

This year, the House leadership has changed and chances for NREPA’s passage have increased dramatically. Schneider says NREPA offers a productive way to “quickly end the war for wilderness and move on.”

To read the legislation, please go to:

More information about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act can be found at

After 22 years, NREPA’s time has come.

PAUL RICHARDS, a former Montana legislator and candidate for U.S. Senate, currently sits on the board of directors of the Southwest Montana Wildlands Alliance. He can be reached at: