Protect the Wild Rockies

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would go a long way towards preserving what is best about the region.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), H.R.1755, was yet again introduced into the 117th Congress by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York on March 10. The legislation, which would protect all the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies, is one of the most visionary and ambitious pieces of conservation legislation since the 1980 Alaska Lands bill, which more than doubled the National Parks System.

A hiker on McDougal Peak at Bridger Teton National Forest, Wyoming​. NREPA would protect all the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies.

NREPA — which has been introduced every other year 15 times since 1995 — is the creation of the Alliance for Wild Rockies, one of the most effective conservation organizations in the Northern Rockies. Thus far representatives from the state’s involved have not supported the legislation except for one Oregon Congressman.

The act would designate 23 million acres of new wilderness and protect 1,800 miles of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. These lands are some of the wildest, and include critical wildlife habitat left unprotected in the lower 48 states. NREPA would essentially protect all the remaining Forest Service roadless lands in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington.

Among the outstanding landscapes included for protection in NREPA in Montana is the Gallatin Range south of Bozeman, the Crazy Mountains by Livingston, the Pryor Mountains by Billings, the Whitefish Range west of Glacier National Park, the Badger Two Medicine area south of Glacier National Park, the Great Burn area and Sapphire Range by Missoula, and the Snow Crest and Gravelly Range east of Dillon.

In Idaho, among the many important roadless lands that are included in the proposed act are the Pioneer Mountains east of Sun Valley, the Lost River and Lemhi Ranges south of Challis, the Caribou Range near Idaho Falls. In Central Idaho, on the vast Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, NREPA would designate Meadow Creek, the Bighorn Weitus and Mallard Larkin areas as wilderness. While in northern Idaho the Selkirk Mountains and Scotchman’s Peak areas near the Canadian Border would finally garner federal wilderness designation.

Wyoming also has its share of proposed new wilderness such as the Wyoming Range and Salt River Ranges south of Jackson. Other areas near Jackson include the Mount Leidy Highlands, and the Palisades and Shoal Creek areas. It would expand the Washakie and North Absaroka wildernesses by Cody, as well wilderness areas encompassing the Wind River Range and Bighorn Mountains.

In eastern Oregon, NREPA would protect much of Hells Canyon and the Elkhorn Range as well as important additions to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. While in eastern Washington, the Kettle River Range and Salmo Priest areas would get deserved wilderness designation.

The ecological value of this protection cannot be overstated. NREPA would preserve critical habitat for sensitive or endangered wildlife, including bull trout, lynx, wolverine, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, wolves, and numerous other species that are candidates for listing or already listed under the Endangered Species Act. It would also create protected corridors that will ensure that wildlife and plants have a chance to move or migrate in response to climate change and ensure genetic interaction between isolated populations.

Bighorn sheep on a Mount Everts ridge in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The proposed act would protect natural ecological processes that shape our ecosystems — from predator-prey relationships to natural wildfire regimes to wind, drought, insects, and other agents that influence our ecosystems.

Ponderosa pines along the Imnaha River in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Oregon.

Aspen in fall at in Targhee National Forest, Idaho.

NREPA would protect natural ecological processes that shape our ecosystems — from predator-prey relationships to natural wildfire regimes to wind, drought, insects, and other agents that influence our ecosystems. Ultimately, protecting ecological processes is how you preserve native species and evolution.

Currently, forestlands in the United States annually sequester between 10 to 20 percent of the carbon emissions produced. The enactment of NREPA would go a long way towards creating massive carbon reserves by putting much of the public forests in these states off-limits to logging. Giant old-growth trees store much of the forest carbon. One recent study suggests that 3 percent of the larger trees store 42 percent of the carbon. NREPA will protect the remaining old-growth in the region.

For instance, in Oregon, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from timber harvest not fossil fuel-powered transportation. Numerous studies have shown that logging/thinning releases far more carbon than intact forests. Even forests charred by wildfire store far more carbon than logged areas. The snags and boles left after a fire consists of carbon, and is important habitat for many species that depend on snag forests for their survival.

Additionally, protecting rivers from dams by conferring them Wild and Scenic River designation will ensure natural flow regimes critical to many aquatic species, from white sturgeon to cutthroat trout.

As in many parts of the West, there has been a transition from natural resource exploitation industries like mining and logging to economies that are dependent on quality-of-life attributes. For many people having outdoor recreational opportunities close at hand is essential to their sense of wellbeing and welfare. And it’s not just about being able to hike or canoe in a wilderness area or float a wild and scenic river, NREPA would protect the water quality and clean air that are critical to healthy living.

Due to these factors, we have seen a tremendous migration to towns and cities in the region drawn by the outdoor amenities available. The Covid pandemic has accelerated this shift in demographics. More and more people have learned to work from home or remotely, meaning they can choose to live where they feel there are numerous natural amenities. NREPA would protect these amenities.

It’s about our children as well. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students with frequent access to the outdoors improve health, social skills, and school performance.

In addition to preserving the foundation for the new economy, NREPA also requires the restoration of previously logged lands and other ecosystem recovery actions that will create alternative jobs for loggers, heavy equipment operators, and others who once relied on the extractive industries.

In recent decades, scientists and organizations have called for creating a significant network of protected lands. Starting in the 1990s, the Wildlands Project outlined a network of protected wildlands across the continent. More recently EO Wilson, the esteemed biologist, published his book “Half-Earth” calling for the preservation of half of the Earth for Nature. The newly elected Biden Administration has endorsed the 30 x 30 proposal supported that would protect 30 percent of the United States by the year 2030.

Each of these initiatives, in their own way, provide philosophical and scientific support for NREPA. The enactment of this act would go a long way towards preserving what is best about the northern Rockies and contribute to these lands’ long-term stability.

NREPA is more than legislation. It is a recognition that we have an obligation to protect at least some of our nation’s landscape for future generations, as well as the survival of the numerous plants and animals that depend upon this Earth. It signals a humility towards the land and acknowledges that we must put some of the planet off-limits from human exploitation.

With the Biden administration’s commitment towards more enlightened attitudes towards our public lands, there is reason to hope that NREPA legislation will get a fair hearing in Congress and be passed into law. I can assure you that the grizzlies, elk, wolverine, lynx, bull trout, sage grouse, and other critters are hoping I’m right.

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