Roadless or Free: Western Crowd Divided
MISSOULA, Montana, June 22, 2000 (ENS) - To road or not to road in America's national forests? The U.S. Forest Service's proposal to keep 43 million acres roadless is being debated now at 300 public hearings across the country.
An estimated 2,500 people turned out Wednesday in Missoula to express a wide range of opinions in a contentious public hearing and at an industry supportive rally in the streets of this university town.
The roadless proposal is being criticized by resource extractive industries and also by environmentalists. The timber industry and off-road vehicle supporters contend the Forest Service's proposal would "lock up" millions of acres of national forest lands and result in catastrophic wildfires.
Environmentalists are concerned that, while the proposal would prohibit road construction, it still would allow logging, mining, grazing and off road vehicle use within the roadless areas. Environmentalists also point out the Forest Service's proposal would exempt America's largest national forest - the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
The timber industry and off-road vehicle supporters organized a festive rally with live music, barbecue, keynote speakers and what was dubbed as the "world's largest picnic table" a few blocks from the official Forest Service public forum at a Missoula hotel.
The goal of this Communities Against Roadless Expansion (C.A.R.E.) rally was to stop "the Clinton/Gore roadless initiative" and to protest what rally participants called "the Clinton administration's war on the rural west."
Information distributed by organizers of the C.A.R.E. rally stated, "If the Clinton/Gore administration and anti-forestry activists have their way, six million acres in Montana will be closed to most recreation, sensible forest management and the ability to fight devastating forest fires like those seen in Los Alamos, New Mexico."
Alan Mikkelsen, called the "father of the multiple use movement in Montana," was one of about a dozen speakers who took the stage to address the crowd of 1,500 at the C.A.R.E. rally.
Speaking on behalf of Dennis Rehberg, Republican candidate for Montana's lone seat in the House of Representatives, Mikkelsen chided "environmental extremists academics" for talking about the values of wilderness while ignoring the values of rural lives and communities.
"What devalues our lives are mandates from Washington, D.C. and mandates from environmental extremists academics that are intellectually dishonest," said Mikklesen. "The Clinton/Gore administration is intent on building a so-called legacy on the backs of Montana and Idaho workers."
Judy Stang, a county commissioner from nearby Mineral County said she was at the rally to "support my constituents and to let people know that this roadless proposal will hurt our rural way of life. People at this rally are scared about what will happen to their jobs and our communities."
In contrast, the majority of speakers at the Forest Service public forum said not all the facts are being considered by roadless opponents. "A lot of angst and confusion is being put out by the timber industry about this roadless proposal," said Tary Mocabee. The native Montanan who operates a seasonal guest ranch in western Montana spoke in favor of protecting national forest roadless areas.
Macabee told the public forum, "During the past 20 years, the biggest job loss in the timber industry has been the industry's own automation efforts. But the timber industry is always looking to blame the environmentalists."
Tom Power, professor of economics at the University of Montana, called the C.A.R.E. rally "simply another attempt of corporate interests to maintain control of the public's land."
"The rally organizers tell us that protecting roadless areas hurts forest health and the economic health of timber communities. However, in Montana, almost no timber harvests are planned in roadless areas during the next five years," claimed Power.
Power asserts that protecting roadless areas not only from roadbuilding, but also from logging, will have practically no impact on the economy of the West. "Even ignoring any economic benefits of protecting these areas, the economic costs of permanently protecting Montana's roadless national forest lands from roadbuilding and logging would be less than a 200th of one percent reduction in employment. The impacts elsewhere across the nation would be even smaller."
Yet, many people at the C.A.R.E. rally said they were protesting more than just the Forest Service's roadless proposal. Participants often mentioned the "bigger issues" of the "federal government's control over our lives."
Some cited the National Park Service's proposal to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park, the Forest Service's refusal to reopen a portion of road along Jarbidge River in Nevada due to the endangered bull trout and the problem with "people back East" being able to influence national forest policies in the West.
Bigger issues were cited by environmentalists too. At the public forum, Jeanette Russell of the National Forest Protection Alliance, an organization working to protect public lands from exploitation, said, "The roadless debate points to the larger issue of the public's desire for the Forest Service to get out of the logging business, the mining business and the grazing business."
"Should America's national forests be places where taxpayers subsidize corporations to cut down the forests, pollute the rivers and scar the mountainsides?" asked Russell. "Or should our national forests be managed free from commercial exploitation?"
Russell's comments were immediately interrupted with shouts of, "This is bullshit," and "What are you gonna wipe your ass with?" She was one of many of the early speakers at the public forum confronted with such outbursts from the crowd. The Forest Service moderator repeatedly had to ask the crowd to maintain order and contain their emotions.
When order was restored, Russell continued, "There are common sense, real world solutions that should be implemented to protect national forests."
As a case in point, Russell pointed to the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, a bill in Congress that would protect national forests from commercial logging while investing money towards worker retraining, non-commercial restoration and alternative fiber development.
"Let's put people to work restoring our national forests, instead of destroying our national forests," added Russell.
To learn more about the Forest Service's proposal or locate a public meeting in your area, visit their website at: http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us. Information is also available for review at the public meetings, all Forest Service offices, and at major public libraries. Call the roadless toll-free information number, 1-800-384-7623.
Written comments are being accepted by the Forest Service until July 17. Comments can be faxed to: 877-703-2494 or mailed to: USDA Forest Service-CAET; Attention: Roadless Area Proposed Rule, PO Box 221090, Salt Lake City, UT 84122. People can comment directly at the roadless website: http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us.
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