Viewpoint: Solving the wilderness problem – the grand solution
Assuming politicians can open their minds to trying to solve the wilderness problem, and assuming conservationists can unify natural allies into a cohesive constituency; here is my proposed idea for finally putting the Montana wilderness debate behind us.
With the exception of the already designated wilderness study areas (WSAs), conservationists should accept that future so-called “Big W Wilderness” designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act is off the table.
Instead, we need to ask our congressional leaders for a new legislative solution that, for lack of a better term, I will call Backcountry. This new designation will be less restrictive that Big W Wilderness and will allow all forms of non-motorized, muscle-powered recreation, but not roads or motorized use.
It then becomes a simple two-step process that could be combined into to one piece of legislation.
Step one. Make the WSAs Big W Wilderness. Don’t clutter up the bill with a plethora of unrelated provisos. Save that for step two.
WSAs have been, in essence, managed as Big W Wilderness for 44 years, so let’s consider this a precedent. Making them Big W Wilderness doesn’t really change anything. All it does is formalize the status quo.
Step two. Combine all current collaborative efforts, such as current work in the Blackfoot-Clearwater and Gallatin Range into a statewide bill called something like the Montana Backcountry Act. This will be a huge, complicated piece of legislation that addresses the desires of most major stakeholders.
First and foremost, the bill would designate the remaining unprotected roadless land as Backcountry, which will allow all forms of non-motorized, muscle-powered recreation, including mountain biking, but disallow roads and motors. You can call it “wilderness lite.”
The bill must also include relief for at least two other major stakeholders, the timber industry and Montanans interested in motorized recreation. I know very little about logging or motorized use of our trails, so I will save the details for the negotiators. I do know, however, that easing the concerns of these two stakeholders is essential to any solution.
If the timber industry would, for starters, agree to no logging in the remaining roadless land in exchange for more timber harvest in the roughly 77 percent of our public lands already open to logging, that would be a titanic step forward.
The following paragraph will probably permanently disqualify me as a “purist,” but having grown up on a farm, I consider logging another form of agriculture. If done properly (such as protecting streambeds and set aside corridors for wildlife security), it’s no different than a cornfield. I don’t consider it ugly or destructive. Instead, I see it as a key element of our economy that produces a product we all use and need. I much prefer to produce it here in Montana rather than import old growth logs from Canada.
This increased timber harvest would involve mostly second growth trees and some of it within the proverbial viewshed from our cities and highways. That is, folks, a tiny pill to swallow. Just another cornfield.
As an aside, it sure seems like increasing logging activity in already-roaded areas would be more economical than building new roads into remote areas.
For motorized recreation, the WSAs shouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps with minor exceptions, these wild areas have been closed to motorized recreation for four decades and probably always will be closed to motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles, so hopefully, motorized recreation advocates can move on to a long-term solution.
While hikers, mountain bikers and backcountry horsemen can peacefully share trails, motorized and non-motorized recreationists really cannot co-exist on the same trails, even though some people in the Forest Service fanaticize about this as a convenient solution. I wonder if some public land, maybe entire mountain ranges, could be prioritized for motorized recreation. Such management priority would essentially exclude hikers. It might not be illegal to hike in dedicated motorized areas, but most hikers would opt for non-motorized areas.
Incidentally, e-bikes should be excluded from Backcountry because they are technically motorized vehicles no different than an electric motorcycle. A basic pedal-assist bicycle might not seem like a problem, and probably isn’t, but where do you draw the line between pedal-assist technology and a full-blown e-dirt bike with four-inch knobby tires capable of going 70 mph? Such e-motorcycles already exist and future models sure to be even more powerful. There is really no way to legally separate e-bicycles from e-motorcycles.
So, there it is. It might seem like a simplistic approach, but with dedicated work by our conservation and political leaders we can finally solve the wilderness problem. Then, I can die with a smile on my face.