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Wilderness bill debate boils down to East versus West
by Noelle Straub, Missoulian D.C. Bureau

WASHINGTON - A longstanding rift between East Coast and Western lawmakers erupted again Thursday as a congressional subcommittee heard testimony on a sweeping bill that would designate as wilderness 23 million acres in five Western states.

Supporters of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act noted that the bill only affects public lands and said it would protect vital wildlife corridors in the West. They considered it a victory simply that a hearing took place on the bill, which has been reintroduced every year since 1993.

Opponents said the bill would not allow for local input on the areas designated and that it would be a top-down federal mandate. No House members from affected districts support the legislation, opponents told a subpanel of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The act would designate as awilderness nearly 7 million acres in Montana, 9.5 million acres in Idaho, 5 million acres in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in eastern Oregon and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington. Included in those totals is more than 3 million acres in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks.

The bill's two main sponsors, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., testified first. Maloney noted that the bill has 115 co-sponsors in both parties from 35 different states. She also said hundreds of grassroots organizations, environmental groups and businesses in the West support it.

“It has deep and strong support from residents in the affected areas,” she testified.

Maloney emphasized that the bill would not affect private land and said it would protect an entire functioning ecosystem. She also said it would create jobs by employing more than 2,000 workers to restore areas damaged by road building or logging.

She said accusations that the bill takes a top-down approach “could not be further from the truth.” She said local scientists, economists and activists in the affected states helped write the bill, but could not find any of their own legislators with enough vision to introduce it, so sought other lawmakers to do so.

The bill “would not be here today except for local leaders,” she said.

Shays said the debate should be on the bill itself and not on the motives of the East Coast lawmakers who sponsored it. He noted that the lands are owned by all Americans, not just those living next door.

“Why would I care about the Northern Rockies living in Connecticut?” Shays asked. “For the same reasons Teddy Roosevelt cared, living in New York state.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., testified against the bill, saying a blanket wilderness designation is a “truly bad way” of managing land. He said he received more than 7,000 petitions from Montanans about the bill in one week and that 96 percent opposed it.

Rehberg said sound land management decisions are best achieved through cooperation on the local level, citing the Blackfoot Challenge and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership as the right way to designate wilderness.

“Unfortunately, the (act) threatens the Montana way of making land management decisions and has the potential to stop these collaborative partnerships in their tracks,” he said. “It's not the way folks do business in the West.”

He said he would defer to Maloney on what should be done with ground zero in New York and that he hoped she would “accord me the same respect” about Western lands.

Maloney said she wants to work to achieve more public access to the lands.

Officials from the Agriculture and Interior departments also testified in opposition to the bill - which they said would not allow public involvement in land management decisions.

Wilderness designation would reduce their ability to pre-treat forests to reduce wildfire risks, they said. And some areas in the bill already have been leased for energy development, they said, which would create conflicts.

Singer Carole King, who lives in Idaho, and officials from several conservation groups testified for the bill. King said no one attacks the science or the economics behind the bill, but that opponents complain instead about a top-down approach and Easterners telling Westerners what to do. But it takes national legislation to accomplish national goals, she said, and the bill must address the entire ecosystem.

“It's not about political boundaries; it's about science,” she said. “This is an ecosystem bill.”

Bruce Vincent of Libby, executive director of Communities for a Great Northwest, and Noel Williams of the Montana Coalition of Forest Counties opposed the bill. Vincent said the bill would act like a “Scud missile” coming down on the table where local leaders work to find consensus on managing lands and that areas would lose jobs because of reduced logging and recreation. Williams said local voices should be given the most weight in land policy decisions.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also opposes the legislation as a top-down approach.

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