Two Montana environmental activists came to the Idaho Conservation League’s 1989 Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake Lodge to rally support for a completely new approach to protecting wilderness.
Mike Bader and Cass Chinske, both of Missoula, had fought alongside many Idahoans in what we now call the timber wars and were on the verge of victory, even though they didn’t know it. In the next five years the timber harvest across the Northern Rockies would dive due to water quality issues, endangered species protection and Congress’ unwillingness to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize roads in the last roadless lands in the West.
The West’s congressional delegations couldn’t stop the slide in timber harvests. They were hit from both sides when they tried to pass wilderness bills. All had far fewer acres than preservationists like Bader wanted.
So the pair wrote the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would protect 15 million acres of roadless lands in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. They got an astounding 135 groups from the U.S. and Canada behind the bill when it was introduced in 1992. They were going to “change political reality,” they said, by getting so much national support that it would overwhelm the influence of the congressional delegations of the region.
That year, Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Popular movies included “Aladdin,” “Basic Instinct,” “A League of their Own” and “Wayne’s World.”
Idahoan Carole King had a new single: “Now and Forever.”
The Gershwin Prize-winning singer-songwriter has a ranch in the middle of what is now the White Clouds Wilderness. She had been pushing Congress to protect all of the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies since the mid-1980s and became a strong advocate for ambitious wilderness legislation.
She went from office to office, picking up sponsors on both sides of the aisle. In 2007, with Democrats controlling the House, she finally got a hearing on the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. But Congress turned to the right and the bill went nowhere.
This week, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse introduced the bill in the Senate for the first time. The legislation, S 3022, would give permanent wilderness protection to 23 million acres of roadless lands in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and designate 1,800 miles of rivers and streams as wild and scenic. Co-sponsors include Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“One result of not having (the ecosystem protection act) has been a tremendous loss of populations among species such as wolverine, lynx, grizzly bear, fluvial Arctic grayling and bull trout,” King said in a news release.
Many groups, such as the Idaho Conservation League, no longer support the bill, choosing instead to work on individual wilderness legislation that resulted in the protection of 500,000 acres in the Owyhees in 2009 and 275,000 in the Boulder-White Clouds in 2015. Now they are working to protect the Scotchman’s Peak area in North Idaho near Clark’s Fork.
But President Clinton’s 2001 Roadless Rule was what took most of the wind out of the Northern Rockies bill’s sails. Most, if not all, of the lands that would have been designated wilderness under King’s bill are protected by the original rule and Idaho’s subsequent separate roadless rule.
King’s tireless advocacy laid the groundwork for the popular roadless protections. Her supporters say they fall short of their goal to permanently protect the wild ecosystems of the region and corridors that allow critters to migrate in the face of lost habitat from climate change.
But they and she should take pride in the way they changed political reality, even if it doesn’t achieve their ultimate goal.