WHAT'S often been called "the last, best place" - the northern Rocky Mountain region of Montana - is the focus of a classic political fight over the environment.
It involves millions of acres of pristine mountains, valleys, and streams now home to many species of wildlife, including the grizzly bear, which is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. It also illustrates the challenges many areas across the western United States face as they shift from resource-based economies to other sources of jobs and income. And it is the first clear example of how scientists - and lawmakers - are changing their perspective on environmental matters from politic al boundaries to "bioregions" covering a number of states.
Montana is one of only two states in the West (Idaho is the other) for which Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive statewide wilderness bill.
"It's an issue that has divided my home state for over a decade," says Sen. Max Baucus (D). "More than any issue I've encountered in my 17 years of congressional service, wilderness has pitted neighbor against neighbor, Montanan against Montanan in our own civil war."
The dispute here has left about 6 million acres of national forest land in a kind of policy limbo: designated as "roadless areas" but not fully protected as wilderness, where logging roads or any other form of development are permanently prohibited.
Yet most Montanans (67 percent according to one recent poll) want the issue settled, and they want all sides - environmentalists, loggers, miners, and developers - to find a middle ground.
Senator Baucus believes he's found that spot in a bill that recently passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House of Representatives. The Montana National Forest Management Act sets aside 1.2 million acres of wilderness. It protects another half-million acres as wilderness study or national recreation areas.
But the bill also opens up another 4 million acres of what has been de facto wilderness to potential logging, mining, and other development. This led 22 senators to vote against the bill on the grounds that a national treasure would be damaged.
Senator Baucus says the vast majority of those 4 million acres would never see the bulldozer blade of a Forest Service roadbuilder. And he insists that his "extraordinarily delicate compromise, extraordinarily delicate balance" provides strong protection for wildlife habitat, water quality, and the right of citizens to challenge any timber sale the Forest Service may approve.
That's dead wrong, says Mike Bader, executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and a former Yellowstone National Park ranger who specialized in back-country resource management.
"The bill is a perfect example of what's wrong with the way national forests are being managed," says Mr. Bader. "This is the only place where literally all the species that were here when Lewis and Clark came through are left because of the relatively large chunks of undeveloped land." Among the species are: wolves, bull trout, salmon, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, lynx, bald eagles, wolverines, mountain lions, and bison - grizzly bears are the best known and most controversial.
There are differences of opinion over how many grizzlies roam the northern Rockies and (more important) how many breeding pairs it takes to sustain a healthy population. But wildlife biologists agree that the grizzly, which has lost all but two percent of its original habitat, needs large areas untouched by human activity to hunt and breed. Not only logging drives them out but also logging roads that open up bear habitat to hunters and recreationalists.
In a letter to Senator Baucus, University of Montana biology professor Lee Metzgar and a dozen other wildlife specialists said "current scientific information indicates clearly that further roading of key areas will doom the last remnant populations of large, sensitive mammals in the lower 48 states. Most of the remaining roadless areas constitute key areas and they simply cannot be released for conventional development without disastrous consequences."
"The critical factor with grizzly bears is loss of habitat," says Derek Craighead, who has spent years doing pioneering work tracking grizzlies by radio collar and satellite and whose father and uncle founded the Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute. "Just the passage of this bill [the Baucus bill] would be the one single thing that eliminates grizzly bears in the northern Rockies."
Environmentalists see grizzlies as an "indicator species" showing the relative health of forests, and they favor another piece of proposed legislation - The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act sponsored by Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D) of Pennsylvania.
The bill covers portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington, adding more than 13 million acres to the wilderness system and designating 895 miles of river as "wild and scenic." It also connects the five major ecosystems of what environmentalists call the "Northern Rockies Bioregion" with 2.4 million acres of corridors protected as special management areas.
Such corridors are needed because of "fragmentation of habitat into smaller islands with none of those islands able to support a viable population," says Lance Olsen, president of the Great Bear Foundation, a research organization in Missoula. "Following a period when they were increasing in population, they've run into a brick wall: us." But the "us" - that is, the loggers and millworkers who also depend on healthy forests - is also an "indicator species," he says. "When the habitat they share goes do wn, they both go down."
Timber companies and wood products industry unions are generally satisfied with the Baucus bill, although they would like to see even greater assurance of a steady timber supply. Montana's two congressmen (Pat Williams (D) and Ron Marlenee (R) hope to move the bill in this direction in the House. But there are questions about just how many jobs are at stake. Like much of the rest of the West, the timber industry in Montana has seen a 30 percent increase in productivity over the past decade due to automat ion and hence a decline in workers.
Thomas Michael Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana, has studied the employment impact of the Kostmayer Wilderness Bill favored by environmentalists. If all roadless areas in the state were fenced off as wilderness, Professor Power says, the state would lose about 200 timber jobs (600 jobs when timber-related employment is added in). This is just 10 percent of the 6,000 new jobs added to the Montana economy annually in other sectors, he says, or the number "typically c reated in any five week period."
"Increasing amounts of economic activity in the state are 'landscape-related' in the sense that economic activity is supported and enhanced by the high quality natural environment tied to our wild landscapes," Power wrote. "Sacrificing these economically important natural amenities in order to temporarily support an extractive industry in decline is the opposite of economic development. It is a prescription for ongoing economic decline."
There is some question whether the Baucus bill will get a full hearing and vote in the House. Many see the issue as momentous. "We're at a point where we have to choose whether we want grizzly bears and wolves and wolverines or we don't," says wildlife biologist Derek Craighead.