The last best chance for the last best place

Some call it the last big wild. From craggy snow-capped peaks to glacial valleys to thickly pined forests to sagebrush basins to undammed rivers, the Northern Rockies offers up the largest temperate forest in the continental U.S. and is the only remaining area in the lower 48 to support all the species living during the Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800s.

Some call it a visionary bill and a new model of wilderness protection. Conceived by scientists 14 years ago, The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) is a comprehensive proposal for ecosystem protection that aims to protect a 20-million-acre web of wildlands in five states.

NREPA is visionary not only in size, scope and spirit but in that it focuses on the science of conservation biology--ecosystems, watersheds and science--not arbitrary political boundaries and partisan politics. NREPA is the first wilderness bill based on the biological health of an entire ecosystem rather than recreational and scenic values.

The bill also offers a dose of common sense through fiscal responsibility by consolidating the management plan for 20 million acres of federal land and by saving taxpayers $245 million by prohibiting deficit road building and logging subsidies, also known as corporate welfare.

Even more visionary is the economic impact of NREPA. In addition to preserving and bettering the land, which in turn promotes tourism, which is the lifeblood of many rural communities, NREPA will also create over 2,000 new jobs through the Wildland Recovery Corps. The program will restore habitat in areas damaged by road building and clearcutting. Money for this program will come from ending corporate timber welfare/subsidies.

The Northern Rockies ecosystem, which covers parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington, is home to over 300 species and contains over 20 million acres of publicly owned wildlands--from national parks to wilderness areas to BLM lands.

The area is under a multitude of state and federal land management policies--a system of rules, policies and boundaries nature does not recognize. A grizzly cannot tell national park land from BLM land. Wolves do not know if they are in Idaho or Wyoming. Fish follow their ancient migrations without regard for state boundaries.

What NREPA proposes to do is take this checkerboard of federal lands managed by several different agencies and treat it as a biological whole. Who manages the land does not change, but how the land is managed will.

"All we are asking is to manage public lands differently," said NREPA lobbyist Colleen Corrigan, who was in Boise last week promoting the cutting-edge bill.

One misconception about NREPA is that it will gobble up private lands. NREPA is not a land grab. Repeat: NREPA is not a land grab. In fact it only affects land already owned by the federal government. Private landowners are not impacted by NREPA.

Another misconception about NREPA is that all designated lands will be locked up. Approximately 50 percent of publicly owned lands in the region will continue to be managed according to existing land management plans. NREPA does not close access to public lands, it simply prohibits road building in areas currently roadless. Since two-thirds of the national forests are already roaded, preserving the remaining third does not seem too unreasonable. Hunting and fishing are not impacted by NREPA either.

The bi-partisan bill (HR 1105), led by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), is sponsored by more than 180 members of Congress.

NREPA got off to a slow start. In the early 1990s, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman called NREPA "the future of wilderness preservation," but acknowledged numerous objections to NREPA saying, "Foremost is that it doesn't seem to have a snowball's chance in hell." At the time NREPA had 40 co-sponsors. Today it has 184 co-sponsors.

Noticeably absent from the extensive list of co-sponsors are Idaho, Montana and Wyoming congressional delegations. But, through NREPA's strategic political maneuvering and national political pressure, provincial political concerns can be overridden. The bill needs only 33 more co-sponsors for a House majority. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined bring only five votes to the table. Three of Oregon's five representatives and four of Washington's nine representatives are NREPA co-sponsors. In addition, according to Corrigan, several House members have stated that while they do not want to be co-sponsors of the bill, they will vote for it.

Plans are in the works to introduce NREPA in the Senate next session.

Nationally, over 700 businesses and organizations have endorsed NREPA including The Sierra Club, Republicans for Environmental Protection, Wilderness Society and Natural Resources Defense Council. Many prominent individuals including former President Jimmy Carter, Carole King and David Brower support NREPA.

Locally, the Idaho Conservation League, the state's largest nonprofit environmental organization, has also endorsed NREPA.

"NREPA is not about concession and compromise, it's about the big picture," said Idaho Conservation League Director John McCarthy last week at the NREPA meeting. McCarthy emphasized that ecological principals go beyond politics.

People often assume that federal land ownership automatically saves wildlands from being plundered. One only has to look at the extensive logging, mining, oil-and-gas development and grazing that takes place on public lands to realize this is not true. Private industry makes millions of dollars each year extracting natural resources from public lands. The only way to protect wildlands is through some form of wilderness designation. Idaho's last wilderness designation occurred over a quarter of a century ago with the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

"Idaho and the Northern Rockies are unlike any place else in this country. Wilderness is this state's biggest asset and should not be squandered," says local NREPA supporter Mary Rohlfing. "Idaho needs to get behind this bill."

For more information on NREPA go to or

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