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(Originally published in USA Today, July 22, 2004)

Rules Change Would Beat Reckless Path Through Forests

By Mary Zeiss Stange

We Montanans haven't heard much about the "wise use" movement in years. The phrase gained currency as a rallying cry among land developers and right-wing anti-environmentalists throughout the West during the early 1990s.

Then, graffiti started sprouting up in the heavily timbered western part of the state proclaiming that "spotted owl tastes like chicken." The Militia of Montana started networking with other so-called patriot groups to promote the idea of local sovereignty over the land and everything on it. After that, the phrase "wise use" more or less went underground.

But with the Bush administration's recent announcement of its intent to repeal the Clinton-era roadless rule, which protects 58.5 million acres of national forest, the insidious idea is poised to make a comeback. Indeed, in Montana, where logging, mining and tourism are vital industries, the concept and its anti-regulation, pro-development spirit remain alive.

The repeal would be the latest in a series of rollbacks of environmental regulatory standards by the Bush administration. But Americans and the environment would be the big losers.

States' rights issue
The administration argues that this is a states' right issue. It would be up to governors to devise their own roadless plans to block the development of federal land. Republicans have hailed the proposal as such. Montana Gov. Judy Martz, for example, applauded the administration's appreciation "that state, tribal and local governments are best equipped to make key decisions about the future of our public lands."

Yet Montana is one of the dozen Western states that stand to be most heavily affected by the move. The proposal was engineered by Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber-industry lobbyist. Environmental leaders are universally outraged at what the National Environmental Trust's Philip Clapp has called "the biggest giveaway to the timber industry in the history of the national forests."

Republicans have been at pains to cloak their actions in the rhetoric of environmentalism.

Roads, they argue, are good for forests. The new, pro-development policy is, as Arizona House Speaker Jake Flake told reporters, "totally essential to getting into thinning forests so that they don't all burn."

But, according to the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, twice as many Western forest fires start in areas with roads. And they are far more likely to be caused by human beings than by lightning, which is nature's way of thinning forests. So it's not difficult to deduce that the best way to protect the forest is to prevent the building of more roads that intensify human access.

Limiting access
This doesn't mean keeping people out of the woods. It just means you can't drive there. In June, at the annual meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, National Rifle Association President Kayne Robinson excoriated environmental groups for their support of roadless wilderness. They were, he said, "trying to hoodwink hunters into voting for gun-ban candidates," and "it's pretty hard to hunt without guns."

The politics of gun control aside, it's more likely that the hunters Robinson had in mind find it pretty hard to hunt without their pickups and all-terrain vehicles, since access to some of the best public hunting land—in roadless areas—is restricted to those on foot or horseback. Those areas provide essential habitat and breeding grounds for game species increasingly feeling the encroachment of human development.

Robinson is as disingenuous regarding the ecological realities of roadless forests as the Department of Agriculture, whose mandate it is to manage the areas for the people.

In June, the Bush administration finalized, over Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's objections, one of the largest ever timber sales in the roadless Klamath-Siskiyou region. This month, a logging plan was announced for a roadless area within Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

In light of these moves, the Bush administration's rewriting of the roadless rule looks to be, at best, an afterthought, and, at worst, downright deception.

Any way you cut it, it amounts to unwise use of the last, best places Americans have to call our own.

Mary Zeiss Stange is an associate professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College. She is the author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997) and co-author, with Carol K. Oyster, of Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America (New York University Press, 2000).

Creative Thought Matters.
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