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The Last, Best Chance to Save the Big Wild: Northern Rockies Ecosystem Preservation Act

Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

— Goethe

For the first time, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) has been introduced into the Senate by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and has seven co-sponsors including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

The bill, S. 3022, would protect 23 million roadless acres in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. The legislative package has been repeatedly introduced into the House, but this is the first time the bill has any Senate sponsor.

NREPA not only protects the few remaining roadless lands (most of our federal lands and nearly all of our private lands are already roaded and developed), but in keeping with the basic principles of conservation biology, the legislation provides for corridors that would connect these wild chunks of country.

It also promotes restoration of some previously roaded lands providing jobs in road deconstruction.

As singer and wilderness defender Carol King noted, “One result of not having NREPA has been a tremendous loss of population among species such as wolverine, lynx, grizzly bear, fluvial Arctic grayling and bull trout.  Plus, protecting these Northern Rockies ecosystems will attract tourists from around the world and, unlike logging, tourism is a sustainable economy that will benefit local communities for generations to come.”

These lands are the fountainheads of the Nation’s major rivers including the Snake/Columbia, Green/Colorado, and Missouri/Mississippi. Protecting these headwaters will preserve the clean drinking water for millions of Americans, as well as industry and agricultural uses.

These mountains are among the most iconic and beautiful landscapes in America. Protecting them as wilderness will greatly enhance the Northern Rockies as a desirable place to live and work. As much new research demonstrates, counties with protected wildlands have lower unemployment, higher property values, and higher incomes than counties with little or no protected lands.

For those who think that wildlands protection only provides tourism jobs, think again. In today’s world where many people can “choose” to live anyplace, access to protected landscapes brings a premium. People move with their feet, and locate near protected federal landscape and bring their jobs, income, and ideas to communities.

Besides favoring business and retirement options for Americans, the legislation will save taxpayers millions of dollars a year by precluding tax payer subsidized timber sales, not to mention protecting habitat for many wildlife species that we (taxpayers) expend great amounts of money to mitigate the impacts of logging sales.

According to a 2010 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, “Excessive sedimentation is considered the most important factor limiting fish habitat and causing quality impairment.” With over 400,000 miles of logging roads on national forest lands alone, the impact on our rivers and streams is huge. Logging road sedimentation is among the biggest contributors to the demise of bull trout, cutthroat trout, salmon, steelhead and other cold water fish.  Logging roads also fragment and reduce security habitat for other wildlife like elk. All of this is part of the uncounted collateral damage that we must absorb or pay to fix.

Keeping the forestlands of these wildlands intact will also help to alleviate global warming since forests are a huge carbon storage mechanism. Indeed, recent research in Oregon showed that each logging job costs Americans $1.6 million in lost carbon storage. Although the forests of the Northern Rockies are not as productive as those Oregon forests, the basic principle applies.

The proposal is endorsed by many scientists and former President Jimmy Carter. In the House of Representatives, NREPA is supported by dozens of Congressional representatives led by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona.

Not surprisingly, none of the Congressional delegations in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming have voiced support for the legislation. But then again, the Northern Rockies state representatives of the past did not support protection of Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park either. It is obvious they were on the wrong side of history.

Also apparently on the wrong side of history are some regional and national organizations who have yet to endorse the proposal including the Montana Wilderness Association and Wilderness Society, among others. Most of these groups believe that such a large, bold proposal will not get traction in Congress. But I can assure you that lack of support from conservation groups will assuredly make passage of NPREPA more difficult.

Fortunately, these are national lands owned by all Americans, and as such, local parochial interests—that have been wrong time and time again when it comes to decisions about conserving our public patrimony, are not the only voices that count. With luck NREPA will pass Congress and present and future generations will wonder why there was any reason not to support such bold legislation.

But we should remember the quote from Goethe—dream big—it genius, power, and magic.

To see a map of the proposal, go to this link.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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