The Destructive Power of "Roadless" Forests

The Wilderness Society (a bunch of environmentalists) recently commissioned a report in response to the 6.4 million acres of roadless national forest land set aside in Montana. As was expected, the report concluded that rendering 6.4 million acres of land off limits to any type of development will somehow be a great boon to Montana’s economy. Concluding that the new roadless initiative "provides Montana with some real opportunities", the study more or less tells workers in the logging industry that they should be glad that they are now prohibited from working. All of this is thanks to an executive order issued by a President who has rarely ever set foot in Montana, and certainly knows exceedingly little about the timber industry in the Rocky Mountains.

The executive order, signed by Clinton in the last days of his presidency, declares 58.5 million acres of forest land to be off limits to logging operations and road building. 6.4 million of those acres are in Montana, and folks over in Helena don’t much like the new regulations.

The resistance to the order prompted the Wilderness Society’s study which approached the problem with an almost comical naïveté. Noting that people "prefer to live near natural forests rather than the stumps created by clear cuts, and near clean streams rather than those clogged with mud from roads and logging operations." It also states that the lost jobs in the timber industry "probably will occur unnoticed". The report does not attempt to explain how all six million acres and all its u2018near clean streams’ will be made visible from people’s back porches or how timber workers will not notice that they are unemployed.

The report bases its conclusions on the fact that 75% of the jobs derived from the national forests is derived from recreations or "eco-tourism". Thanks to increasingly stringent regulations on logging over the past eight years, logging has become a smaller and smaller part of the economy not only in Montana, but throughout the entire Western region. With the government-mandated decline in logging, recreation’s share of the wilderness economy has naturally become larger and larger. The Wilderness Society’s report acts as if the timber industry had packed up its bags and voluntarily left the region, when in reality they were forced out. The Montana Wood Products Association’s Cary Hegreberg points to the per-capita income and average wages in Montana. They are falling in relation to the rest of the country, and Hegreberg blames it on the federal government’s refusal to consider the opportunity costs of locking up millions and millions of acres of national forest land.

The drive for roadless forests doesn’t address the largest problem facing national forests these days: wildfires. In fact, just months before wildfires tore through Western States last summer from New Mexico to Montana, Montana Governor Marc Racicot went before Congress to complain about the way that roadless initiatives were being implemented. Even though Montana pleaded the EPA to involve them in the new forest plans, the federal government refused to consider the interests of the state. Racicot warned of the fire hazard and pointed to the well maintained state forests in Montana. The EPA declined to implement any anti-fire measures and the result was millions of charred acres of forest land.

In the end, the goal of roadless initiatives is to hold forests in a static and pristine state so that people with money to burn can hire personal tour guides to take them around the back country. Such a policy not only greatly increases the risks of wildfires, but it also makes the land inaccessible to most ordinary people. The environmentalists make a lot of nice talk about preserving the forests for "future generations" but what they really end up doing is rendering the forests so inaccessible that no one other than neoprene-clad yuppie eco-tourists can ever afford to ever see the forests. In order to preserve the beauty of the forests, the environmentalists (who are usually moneyed white suburbanites) want to make sure than no one but them ever come close enough to the forests to actually enjoy that beauty. The whole system is akin to the old European practice where aristocrat hunters would steal the land of peasants in order to make more room for wild game. Indeed, the environmentalists look with disdain upon the blue-collar folks who make their money in the timber industry and upon families who like to drive through and picnic in national forests. To the environmentalists, such people are parasites who can’t be trusted to give the national forests with the same dainty treatment they themselves would give it. The arrogance is quite astounding.

Although privatization of the national forests would undoubtedly solve many of these problems, I’ll take the easy way out and just suggest that forest lands be given back to the states. As Gov. Racicot points out, the state forests are much better managed than the national forests, and state governments must be given control over policies that directly affect their people and their economy. The workers of Montana have a right to a voice in environmental policy through their state government. When the federal government declares, with a stroke of the pen, that 6 million acres of a state’s land are off limits to the people of that state, it is time for a change.

February 7, 2001

Ryan McMaken lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.