NORTHERN ROCKIES ECOSYSTEM PROTECTION ACT: Conservation on the Large Scale Needed
Featured Image: Shoal Creek, Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming © George Wuerthner
Editors’ note: The Rewilding Institute endorses strong Wilderness and National Park and other protected area initiatives that will help protect and restore wildlife habitat on regional and continental scales. These are vital steps toward the basic goals of protecting at least 30% of each country’s lands and waters by 2030 and at least half by 2050, and also toward the more specific goals articulated by our founder Dave Foreman in his landmark book, Rewilding North America. Among the most visionary of these proposals for the United States are wildlands network designs drafted by Wildlands Network and partners, Florida conservation area designs by Reed Noss and Tom Hoctor, the Maine Woods National Park and America’s New National Parks proposals (led by RESTORE: The North Woods), Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act (led by Wild Arizona), America’s Redrock Wilderness Act (led by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), Wildlands Network’s Eastern Wildways (or “Half East”) map, Adirondack Council’s 2020 Vision proposals, California’s Missing Linkages plan (drafted by California Wilderness Coalition), National Forest plans drafted by grassroots conservation groups like San Juan Citizens Alliance, BeWildReWild’s Big River Connectivity vision, the Buffalo Commons proposed by demographers Frank & Deborah Popper, and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (described here, and led by Alliance for the Wild Rockies). Back in Wild Earth days, Dave Foreman worked successfully with the late great David Brower to convince Sierra Club to back the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. The NREPA article we run here is adapted from an article George Wuerthner, charter member of our Rewilding Leadership Council, recently placed in Earth Island Journal.
The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), H.R.1755, was introduced into 117th Congress by Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York. A companion bill sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was placed in the Senate.
NREPA is big, bold, and wild.
The legislation is one of the most visionary and ambitious pieces of conservation legislation since the 1980 Alaska Lands bill. NREPA is the creation of the Alliance for Wild Rockies, one of the most effective conservation organizations in the American West.
NREPA would designate 23 million acres of new Wilderness and protect 1,800 miles of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. These lands and waters are some of the wildest and most critical wildlife habitats 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 are 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 NREPA are the Pioneer Mountains east of Sun Valley, the Lost River and Lemhi Ranges south of Challis, and 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. 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 Range south of Jackson. Other areas to be protected near Jackson include the Mount Leidy Highlands, Palisades, and Shoal Creek areas. Additions to the Washakie and North Absaroka Wildernesses by Cody, as well as additions to Wilderness Areas encompassing the Wind River Range and Bighorn Mountains, are also included in this legislation.
In eastern Oregon, NREPA would protect much of Hells Canyon and the Elkhorn Range as well as important additions to the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
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.
NREPA would also create protected corridors that will ensure that wild animals and plants have a chance to move or migrate in response to climate change and ensure genetic interaction between isolated populations.
NREPA would protect natural ecological processes that shape our ecosystems — from predator-prey relationships to wildfire regimes to wind, drought, insects, and other natural agents that influence our ecosystems. Ultimately, protecting ecological processes is how you preserve native species and evolution.
Currently, forest lands in the United States annually sequester 10-20 percent of the carbon emissions produced by human activity. The enactment of NREPA would go a long way toward 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 the largest 3% of trees store 42% of the carbon. NREPA will protect the remaining old-growth forest in the region.
For instance, in Oregon, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from timber harvest and is even more significant than the state’s emissions from all transportation sources. Numerous studies have shown that logging/thinning releases much carbon, whereas intact forests sequester and store carbon.
Even forests charred by wildfire store far more carbon than logged areas. The snags and boles left after a fire consist of carbon, and are important habitats for many species, including black-backed woodpecker, that depend on snag forests for their survival.
Protecting rivers from dams by Wild and Scenic River designation will ensure natural flow regimes critical to many aquatic species, from white sturgeon to cutthroat trout.
PROTECTION OF ECONOMIES
In many parts of the West, there has been a transition from natural resource exploitation industries, particularly mining and logging, to economies that depend on quality-of-life attributes. For many people having outdoor recreational opportunities close at hand is essential to their sense of well-being.
And it’s not just being able to hike or canoe in a Wilderness Area or float a Wild and Scenic River. NREPA would protect the scenic values that are the backdrop for many communities. 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. 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 jobs for loggers, heavy equipment operators, and others who once relied on the extractive industries.
NEW CALLS TO PROTECT LANDS
In recent decades, scientists and conservation groups 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 E.O. 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 which would protect 30 percent of United States lands and waters by the year 2030.
Each of these initiatives, in its way, provides philosophical and scientific support for NREPA. The enactment of NREPA would go a long way toward preserving what is best about the Northern Rockies and contribute to these lands’ long-term stability.
The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act is more than legislation. It is a recognition that we have an obligation to protect at least some of our nation’s landscapes for future generations, of wildlife and people.
NREPA signals a humility toward the land and acknowledges that we must put some of the planet off-limits from human exploitation. NREPA is a way to preserve our nation’s natural heritage and demonstrate a new commitment to life outside of human societies.
With the Biden Administration’s more enlightened attitude toward 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.
George Wuerthner is a professional photographer, writer and ecologist. He has written more than two dozen books on natural history and other environmental topics. He is currently the ED of Public Lands Media, a project of Earth Island Institute. Wuerthner has visited hundreds of mountain ranges around the West, more than 380 wilderness areas, more than 180 national park units, and every national forest west of the Mississippi.
George’s Books: On Amazon
George’s interview on Public Lands Grazing on Rewilding Earth podcast.