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Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA)



By George Wuerthner

In an Earth Day op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson wrote: “The global extinction crisis may be more directly threatening to  human survival than even global climate change, which is becoming a major driver of  biological impoverishment.” He went on to advocate habitat preservation as the only realistic solution to this global extinction crisis. "The only way to save Earth's biodiversity is by preserving natural environments in reserves large enough to maintain wild populations sustainably."


Enactment of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Preservation Act (NREPA) by Congress would go a long ways towards creating the kinds of large reserves that Wilson advocates. NREPA was recently introduced into the 110th Congress by Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Christopher Shays (R-CT). NREPA is big, bold, and visionary. The legislation will protect as Congressionally designated wilderness most of the federal roadless lands in the region including nearly 7 million acres of wilderness in Montana, 9.5 million acres of wilderness in Idaho, 5 million acres of wilderness in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in eastern Oregon, and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington. Included in this total is over 3 million acres in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks—which surprisingly despite their lack of commercial conflicts still do not officially have any designated wilderness acres within their boundaries. 


The bill would permanently protect such well known wildlands as Montana’s 221,000 acre proposed Gallatin Range wilderness, the 110,000 acre proposed Mt. Hefty/Tuchuck/Thompson-Seton wilderness in the Whitefish Range west of Glacier National Park. Also in Montana, NREPA would protect 110,000 acres in the Snowcrest proposed wilderness and 277,000 acres of the Gravelly Range proposed wilderness on the Beaverhead National Forest of Southwest Montana. Some 2,155,433 acres in the northern Continental Divide region are in the bill including all of the Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness.


In Idaho NREPA would protect the outstanding wildlands values of the 457,371 acre Boulder White Cloud proposed wilderness as well as the 250,000 acre Mallard Larkin proposed wilderness, the 240,000 acre Bighorn Weitas proposed wilderness. 


Wyoming has much to gain as well including designation of the  238,996 acre Salt River Range proposed Wilderness, 177,691 acres Commissary Ridge proposed wilderness; and in particular the 282,976 acres Grayback Ridge proposed wilderness in the Wyoming Range—an area currently under threat from oil and gas development. 


Proposed additions to the Eaglecap and Hells Canyon wildernesses as well the Mt. Emily, Murderer’s Creek, and other roadless lands in Oregon are also included in this bill. Nearly all of the roadless lands in Washington’s Kettle River Range are also included in the bill. 


Not all proposed wildernesses are located in a single state-- some trans boundary wilderness proposals such as the 275,000 acre Great Burn proposed wilderness and 87,724 acre Scotchman’s Peak proposed wilderness on the Montana-Idaho border, and the 223,578 acre Palisades proposed wilderness on the Wyoming-Idaho borders are all in this bill. There are many lesser known, but no less deserving areas included in this bill as well. 


But NREPA does not just designate new wildernesses. There are 8,471,252 acres proposed as biological corridors in the bill that would create linkages between major wildlands as the Cabinet/Yaak and Bitterroot/Lemhi areas. These corridors would be managed to facilitate the movement of wildlife between major protected landscapes. This is especially critical given the shifts in plants and animals we expect in light of global warming. Some of these acres would be within existing proposed wilderness areas, but other non-wilderness lands would have special management requirements to protect biological integrity. 


The bill would also designate many new wild and scenic river segments including such waterways as the Yaak, West Fork Madison, Bull River, Dearborn and Vermillion Rivers in Montana, the Henry’s Fork, Pack, Deadwood, East Fork of the Salmon, among others in Idaho, and the Snake, Buffalo, and Hoback in Wyoming as well as the Yellowstone River in Montana and Wyoming. 


In an innovative approach, NREPA also proposes some 1,022,769 acres as wilderness recovery areas where ecological restoration will be implemented through the closure of more than 6,000 miles of roads as well as other measures. These wilderness recovery areas are key corridors and linkages that would help restore and preserve biological migration routes—at least on the federal lands. This restoration component could provide for up to 2,000 jobs.  


In total nearly 23 million acres of land in the Northern Rockies would be affected by this legislation. (Some geographers don’t include the Yellowstone Region in the Northern Rockies—but for the sake of consistency the legislation does include the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the region).


Although politically controversial because of its geographic scale and size, the proposal has the endorsement and support of many regional as well as national conservation organizations. For instance, the Missoula chapter of the MWA, the Cabinet Resource Group, Oregon Wildlife Federation, and Blackfeet Crazy Dogs Society are all on record supporting NREPA. Other regional organizations like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition also endorse the concept of the bill, and support protection of the areas NREPA that would specifically protect in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. National organizations supportive of the bill include REP (Republicans for Environmental Protection), the Wilderness Society, and Sierra Club. Even the National Taxpayers Union Washington, DC supports the bill, in part, because it will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by preventing unwise development. Finally, NREPA also has the endorsement of more than 700 scientists, in part, because it is by far the most scientifically informed wilderness bill ever brought before Congress so far. Though, perhaps the best known NREPA support is former President Jimmy Carter. Not bad company. 


NREPA has a steep uphill climb before it can be enacted into law. At this point, NREPA has endorsements and support from key Congressional members in Oregon and Washington, but none from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming where the majority of the affected lands are located. However, in the last Congress NREPA garnered 188 co sponsors—more than any other introduced wilderness bill. With the new Democratic majority controlling key Congressional committees, NREPA may finally be enacted into law. 


Some naysayers suggest that without local Congressional support NREPA doesn’t have a chance of passage. So what’s new? All significant conservation legislation affecting the West was enacted over the objections and opposition from local people and politicians. When Yellowstone was created by Congress in 1872, Montana’s Congressional delegation strove for 20 years to repeal the Act. After Grand Teton National Monument was established, local residents predicted Jackson would become a ghost town and Wyoming’s delegation tried—unsuccessfully--to get the park undesignated. Westerners opposed to national forest creation by Teddy Roosevelt, succeeded in passing legislation to prevent him from taking any more lands out of the public domain for federal forests—which he signed—but only after designating another 16 million acres of new national forests in the West! Such anecdotes could be found about the creation of nearly all worthwhile conservation legislation in the West. 


 Local support or not, in the long run, enacting NREPA is the right thing to do.  We have a responsibility to preserve some of Nature’s handiwork as wild and unmanipulated landscapes where evolution can continue to generate the life that we all depend upon.  NREPA, alone, won’t preserve the biological integrity of the northern Rockies, but it sure will go a long ways towards bringing us closer to such a goal. I can think of no better bequest to give to future generations than enactment of NREPA into law by the 110th Congress. 

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