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For the week of May 31 through June 6, 2000

Blinded by the "W" word

The Idaho Conservation League, one of Idaho’s strongest advocacy groups, says President Clinton’s roadless initiative is not enough.

Why? The "W" word—wilderness--isn’t part of it.

The stance may be a wily political ploy intended to make it appear that no one is wholly happy with the initiative so that Clinton can strike the middle ground. Or, it’s an extension of the environmentalists’ dilemma in deciding whether the glass is half full or half empty.

We suspect it’s the latter.

The initiative could ensure protection of 9.4 million acres in Idaho and up to 40 million acres nationwide.

The initiative would end road building in roadless areas in national forests. It would end maintenance on many existing roads. However, it would allow continuation of logging by helicopter in some areas.

Idaho Conservation League director Rick Johnson criticized the proposal at the Wild Idaho! Conference at Redfish Lake two weeks ago. He said continuation of any kind of logging is unacceptable and that roadless areas should be designated as nothing less than wilderness.

Johnson’s criticism was consistent with the ICL’s historical all-or-nothing stance on wilderness. The "W" word seems to have blinded Johnson and other purists to what is politically possible. Taken too far, the stance could end up opening more lands to logging and development than it protects.

Logging and mining are virtually impossible without roads. Logs and ore don’t float to mills without trucks—big ones. Logging by helicopter is difficult and wildly expensive.

The president’s initiative will make roadless areas de facto wilderness. They will lack little but the name.

The initiative will free roadless areas from the limbo they have occupied for more than two decades—caught between conservationists and loggers, miners and motorized users.

Conservationists fought the fight. They tenaciously waged battle after battle over Idaho’s wild areas. Forest by forest, appeal by appeal, lawsuit by lawsuit, they used all the tools of law. Sometimes they won, but sometimes they lost.

Luckily this president, in his final year in office, wants to wield the power of the executive order—to end the war over roadless areas. Nationwide, of 192 million acres of federal forest lands, just 60 million acres—less than one-third—are free of roads.

When final, the president’s order will supersede Congress, and the deal-making and posturing that often leave wilderness bills looking like Swiss cheese.

The order will bypass the Idaho delegation, for whom wilderness is anathema. It will give conservationists most of what they fought for.

The permanent protection isn’t perfect, but it’s politically possible With just seven months to go until President Clinton leaves office, the ICL wants to quibble?

The glass is half full. Conservationists should drink up with joy.


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