When we heard the not unexpected news that the Bush administration and now the federal courts were reopening the interminable debate about how to best manage the public roadless lands, I was reminded of the words to an old song: "It seems to me I have heard that song before … it's from an old familiar score … I think I know that melody."
The familiar refrain about our roadless lands is now 25 years old; worn, dated, threadbare, and out of tune. For a quarter-century the fate of these lands has been considered and reconsidered but remains undecided. Count 'em: five presidents, 12 congresses, millions of citizens and thousands of corporations have all struggled to either find management solutions or, too often, to prevent them. No lands, in all of America's history, have been as studied, dissected, evaluated and politicized as have these roadless public lands. These are the same lands, 6 million acres of them, to which the Montana congressional delegation committed nonstop consideration of wilderness and other designations throughout the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s.
Yes, these same lands were in the wilderness bill that President Reagan vetoed in 1988. That was the only veto of a wilderness bill in the history of the United States and the folly of that politically inspired act of cynicism is now abundantly clear. The U.S. Congress has conducted more than 50 hearings and received thousands of pages of testimony about the protection or development of those roadless acres located here in Montana. Region I of the U.S. Forest Service has spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars studying and restudying these same lands. The debate, of course, has been about the eventual fate of the entire 58 million acres of forested roadless public lands throughout America. These lands are owned by neither the state nor any private parties; rather, they are part of the national estate and held under the common ownership of each American Â no matter where he or she lives. They were the subject of the Clinton administration's 600 public hearings from which they received an astonishing 1.6 million comments from local people, the owners of these lands, as to whether the lands should remain roadless or be developed. The overwhelming response was for continued wildness. The Bush administration is now trying to set aside that decision and require more rounds of hearings and meetings.
Twenty-five years ago, the steward of these lands, the Forest Service, conducted a nationwide assessment known as Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II. The resulting documents were presented to Congress for legislation. That is, should they be designated to receive certain conservation protections, should they be released for more road building and extraction, or perhaps receive some combination of both preservation and development? Congress responded to RARE II with dozens of pieces of legislation designed to protect, preserve and utilize these wild places. Nationally owned land in state after state was conserved by Congress, usually through wilderness designation. Today, after a quarter-century, the process of determining the fate of those lands has been virtually concluded Â except for Montana and Idaho.
It is here in the high watersheds of the Missouri to the east and the Columbia to our west that the necessary work remains unfinished. Perhaps it was inevitable that this land representing the brow of America's last hill would be the most politically difficult to complete. The last roadless lands are here, sprawling across the valleys, ramps and peaks of the Continental Divide. They are the migration and calving grounds for the last of the nation's great herds of land animals. Out here the land is not an abstraction but, rather, a reality; the cash register for our recreation and tourism industry but also the land of potential riches for the extractive corporations. Here in the Northern Rockies these roadless lands represent the nexus of America's values; the Gettysburg of the West's two economies: extraction vs. conservation.
The eventual fate of these, unroaded wild lands in our commonly held national estate has been discussed, debated, argued about, analyzed and testified to for 25 years. Millions of tax dollars have been consumed in the process and millions of voices have been heard. Sitting U.S. senators have been toppled, political coalitions have been born and died, demagogues have found a pulpit, and some have been elected, professional political organizers have found lifelong careers. Local-control theorists Â some thoughtful, others naïve, most simply deceitful Â have grabbed the bullhorn to take advantage of the situation.
In the meantime, the land, roadless and wild throughout all time, awaits its fate.
Pat Williams is a Missoulian columnist, senior fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West and a former Democratic congressman.