WHAT'S often been called "the last, best place" - the northern
Rocky Mountain region of Montana - is the focus of a classic
political fight over the environment.
It involves millions of acres of pristine mountains, valleys,
and streams now home to many species of wildlife, including the
grizzly bear, which is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered
Species Act. It also illustrates the challenges many areas across
the western United States face as they shift from resource-based
economies to other sources of jobs and income. And it is the first
clear example of how scientists - and lawmakers - are changing
their perspective on environmental matters from political
boundaries to "bioregions" covering a number of states.
Montana is one of only two states in the West (Idaho is the
other) for which Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive statewide
"It's an issue that has divided my home state for over a
decade," says Sen. Max Baucus (D). "More than any issue I've
encountered in my 17 years of congressional service, wilderness has
pitted neighbor against neighbor, Montanan against Montanan in our
own civil war."
The dispute here has left about 6 million acres of national
forest land in a kind of policy limbo: designated as "roadless
areas" but not fully protected as wilderness, where logging roads
or any other form of development are permanently prohibited.
Yet most Montanans (67 percent according to one recent poll)
want the issue settled, and they want all sides -
environmentalists, loggers, miners, and developers - to find a
Senator Baucus believes he's found that spot in a bill that
recently passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House of
Representatives. The Montana National Forest Management Act sets
aside 1.2 million acres of wilderness. It protects another
half-million acres as wilderness study or national recreation areas.
But the bill also opens up another 4 million acres of what has
been de facto wilderness to potential logging, mining, and other
development. This led 22 senators to vote against the bill on the
grounds that a national treasure would be damaged.
Senator Baucus says the vast majority of those 4 million acres
would never see the bulldozer blade of a Forest Service
roadbuilder. And he insists that his "extraordinarily delicate
compromise, extraordinarily delicate balance" provides strong
protection for wildlife habitat, water quality, and the right of
citizens to challenge any timber sale the Forest Service may
That's dead wrong, says Mike Bader, executive director of the
Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and a former
Yellowstone National Park ranger who specialized in back-country
"The bill is a perfect example of what's wrong with the way
national forests are being managed," says Mr. Bader. "This is the
only place where literally all the species that were here when
Lewis and Clark came through are left because of the relatively
large chunks of undeveloped land." Among the species are: wolves,
bull trout, salmon, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose,
lynx, bald eagles, wolverines, mountain lions, and bison - grizzly
bears are the best known and most controversial.
There are differences of opinion over how many grizzlies roam
the northern Rockies and (more important) how many breeding pairs
it takes to sustain a healthy population. But wildlife biologists
agree that the grizzly, which has lost all but two percent of its
original habitat, needs large areas untouched by human activity to
hunt and breed. Not only logging drives them out but also logging
roads that open up bear habitat to hunters and recreationalists.
In a letter to Senator Baucus, University of Montana biology
professor Lee Metzgar and a dozen other wildlife specialists said
"current scientific information indicates clearly that further
roading of key areas will doom the last remnant populations of
large, sensitive mammals in the lower 48 states. …