In-Depth: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced this bill to protect the Northern Rockies from the threat posed by logging and other industrial activities. When he sponsored this bill in the 115th Congress, Sen. Whitehouse said:
“Our forests and rivers are key to our health and wellbeing. They are also engines of our economy. This bill would preserve these wild places for future generations and safeguard critical habitat for threatened species.”
House sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) says:
“This legislation would preserve an important part of our country’s beautiful wilderness for future generations, secure an important habitat for wildlife, and help fight climate change in the process. It is up to us to be stewards of the earth and preserve these irreplaceable resources for our children and their children.”
The Sierra Club supports this bill, writing in a press release:
“The most ambitious conservation proposal since 1980, which protects public national wildlands in the U.S., has been introduced in our Congress. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington would: 1) Create 23 million acres of Wilderness areas on public lands; 2) Create 1,800 miles of wild/scenic rivers/streams; 3) Create a system of biological corridors that connect ecosystems, ensure the existence of native plants and animals, and mitigates the effects of climate change; 4) Provide more preservation for existing Wilderness areas via protection of wildlands and wild rivers that surround them; 5) Save taxpayers $245 million over 10 years by elimination of subsidized logging and road-building in roadless areas. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem is one of the most magnificent landscapes in the world. It contains national parks and forests including Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks, Clearwater and Payette National Forests, Frank Church River of No Return and Gospel Hump Wildernesses, and other treasures with plants and animals that Lewis and Clark saw in 1804. Bull Trout, Canadian Lynx, Elk, Moose, Bighorn Sheep, and others make their homes here. Protection of national public lands via NREPA ensures that iconic species like the Grizzly Bear and Gray Wolf will be saved; links wildlife/wild areas; provides ecological stability and reduces the impacts of climate change; emphasizes history; combats plant/animal loss; prevents wildlife habitat fragmentation; keeps streams, rivers, and watersheds clean; saves roadless areas from development; and assists local economies by encouraging tourism, outdoor recreation, and wildlife viewing which provide jobs and tax revenue.“
Singer-songwriter Carole King — a longtime supporter of this bill — and Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity expressed support for this bill in a joint New York Times op-ed:
“The Northern Rockies are surely near the top of the list of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. Its ranges contain one of the last great expanses of biodiversity left in the continental United States, including most of the species that were there when Lewis and Clark first passed through in 1805 on their journey of discovery. These attributes alone would be reason enough to protect this region. Instead, the Trump administration has been pushing oil, gas, mining, and logging projects, and removing legal protections from threatened species. To be fair, the Obama administration also pursued some of those actions. But the current administration’s zealotry threatens the region’s wild landscape and rich biodiversity. It’s up to all of us who care about the environment, science and preserving wild places for our children to resist such efforts… [The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act] would designate 23 million acres of roadless public lands in Montana, Idaho, western Wyoming, and eastern Oregon and Washington as wilderness. [It] would also establish a system of vital biological corridors connecting smaller ecosystems within the Northern Rockies to protect native plants and animals. Restoring over one million acres of damaged habitat and watersheds would create jobs, and taxpayers would save millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on road-building and logging projects in which private corporations cut down our public forests.”
In a pair of guest columns in The Missoulian and Independent Record, Garrity adds that this bill would help mitigate climate change by keeping carbon-sequestering forests intact, protect wolverines and help the grizzly bear population recover. In the Missoulian column, he writes:
“NREPA not only protects existing wildlands habitat, but fights climate change by keeping carbon-sequestering forests intact. National forests absorb an astounding 10 percent of the carbon that America creates with unlogged and old-growth forests absorbing the most carbon. Recent studies have also found that logging in states such as Oregon, releases more carbon than all of their cars and trucks combined.”
The Montana Wood Products Association has opposed NREPA since it was first proposed in 1992. In 2016, the organization’s executive director, Julia Altemus, argued that a consensus approach taking stakeholders’ opinions into account would be preferable to this bill:
“You can develop science to whatever level you want to support your position. I’ve not seen their science – and science changes. This bill has not changed. It’s the same bill pretty much that was introduced 24 years ago (in the U.S. House). If you want to introduce a wilderness bill, let’s roll up our sleeves and come to the table with a broad group of stakeholders that are impacted by these decisions and then decide where and what’s appropriate.”
Altemus called this bill a non-starter because it isn’t “collaboratively driven.” She added:
“It doesn’t come from the ground up. It’s coming from a couple of environmental groups that feel this is their best way of addressing connectivity across the West which [the Montana Wood Products Association] would disagree with.”
In 2016, the Montana Wilderness Association also expressed its opposition to NREPA. In an email to Montana Public Radio, it expressed a preference for locally-developed, landscape-based wilderness projects such as that Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition. Today, yet other conservation groups oppose NREPA for various reasons. These include a belief that it won’t pass or a feeling that it’s too ambitious or too radical.
Observing some environmental groups’ opposition to NREPA, ecologist George Wuerthener argues that their misgivings are misplaced and that it’s imperative that they work together to try to secure this bill’s passage:
“What is radical about trying to preserve biodiversity and wildlife habitat? If we had listened to these past negative views, we would not have a 2.3 million-acre River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, or the nearly 1 million-acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, or the 1.2 million-acre North Cascades National Park/Glacier Peak Wilderness complex in Washington, as well as the even more ambitious Alaska Lands Act that created more than a 104 million acres of new national parks, wilderness and refuges in Alaska. Tragically many of today's conservation groups lack vision and even an understanding of conservation science. Whether NREPA would never pass Congress is unknown unless you try. Unfortunately, most of the regional conservation groups seem too afraid to try, much less work hard to protect wildlands. Instead, they rely on collaboratives that give away prime wildlands to achieve partial, if any additional protection of our wildlands. NREPA is like a puzzle. One can support NREPA while promoting wilderness for individual parts of NREPA, thus assembling the whole piece by piece as some groups do. NREPA is legislation that recognizes that what the roadless lands in the Northern Rockies do best is provide exceptional wildlife habitat and clean water. They are some of the best wildlands ecosystems left in the world. NREPA supporters recognize those superlative values and seek to ensure that what we have today will be here in the future… I ask the reluctant conservation groups to rethink their stance on NREPA and start standing with wilderness, instead being an obstacle to wilderness designation.”
This bill has 10 Senate cosponsors, including 10 Democrats and one Independent, in the 116th Congress. A House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney with the support of 39 Democratic House cosponsors, has also been reintroduced in the current Congress. As of early June 2019, neither bill has received a committee vote.
Last Congress, this bill had 12 Senate cosponsors (11 Democrats and one Independent) and didn’t receive a committee vote. The House companion bill had 59 Democratic cosponsors and also didn’t receive a committee vote. This bill was first introduced in 1992.
Of Note: Under U.S. law, federally designated wilderness is the highest-possible level of protection for natural wild areas. The 1964 Wilderness Act declares that lands in this category are “designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition,” recognized as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” and genuinely must appear ‘to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
Today, less than 3% of the lower 48 states is federally designated wilderness. For comparison purposes, the federal government owns roughly 640 million acres (~28%) of the United States’ total 2.27 billion acres of land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS) in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture collectively administer 610.1 million acres of that land (approximately 95% of the federal government’s land). The BLM manages 248.3 million acres of public land and administers about 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral estate throughout the nation; the Forest Services manages 192.9 million acres of multiple-use land and 89.1 million acres of wildlife protection land; and in 2015, the NPS managed 79.8 million acres in 408 diverse units to conserve land and public resources and make them available for public use.
A 2003 study found that NREPA would save taxpayers $245 million over a 10-year period by managing the land as wilderness. The study also found that NREPA’s program to restore Northern Rockies habitats would create over 2,300 jobs in the Northern Rockies region. These figures are cited in this bill.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / skiserge1)