Idaho's Struggle Over Wilderness

`THE FOREST, rightly handled - given the chance - is, next to the earth itself, the most useful servant of man,'' wrote Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the US Forest Service. Mr. Pinchot, responding to a wasteful timber industry, established US forest management in the early 1900s on the principle of sustainable yield. But now, as a clash in Idaho illustrates, protecting tree populations isn't by itself adequate forest management; the whole ecosystem must be considered.

For nearly a decade, Idaho has debated the fate of 9 million acres of public lands. In the early '80s, Sen. James McClure held a series of hearings and introduced a wilderness bill that offered little real land protection. The bill failed to pass.

Now the Idaho senator has a new bill, the Idaho Forest Management Act, and it too appears doomed. This bill designates 1.4 million acres for wilderness and another half-million acres for ``special management.'' The remaining 7 million acres would remain potentially available for industry.

Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus recently withdrew his support for the bill because of its wording on roads. The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as roadless. This bill redefines ``roads'' to include less traveled pathways, thus shrinking the acreage eligible for wilderness. Amendments wait in both House and Senate; environmentalists and industry groups alike oppose the legislation.

Environmentalists say 1.4 million acres is not enough and argue that the bill sets dangerous precedents with its wording on water rights and wilderness roads. Timber advocates say the bill fails to provide a secure base of land for industry needs.

McClure should withdraw his bill to clear the way for new work. Idaho constituent groups, not state and federal politicians, should then hash out an area-by-area deal. Industry and the Forest Service must consider water rights, the interdependency of animal and plant life, and the goals of the Wilderness Act. Environmentalists must be more flexible on the amount of acreage to be set aside.

Idaho needs to make humans a component of the forest equation. A solution that draws on natural resources but preserves nature's balance could set an example for future conservation disputes.

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