DEEP within the national forests sit millions of acres of pristine wildlands, unreachable by roads and virtually untouched by timber companies. It is these roadless lands that serve as the last habitat for grizzly bear, woodland caribou, and bull trout.
Having cut a wide swath through privately owned forests and some publicly owned ones, timber companies are seeking access to millions of additional acres that the federal government has been managing for their outstanding wilderness qualities. Federal legislators, who often try to buy their own reelections by turning public resources over to private interests, are going along with this short-sighted idea.
The United States House of Representatives has passed a bill that would open up millions of additional acres of federal forests in Montana to logging. The US Senate backed a similar plan two years ago and is poised to pass a revised measure shortly, perhaps in the next few weeks.
A presidential veto may soon be the only thing that stands between these national treasures and severe ecological problems: erosion, the destruction of wildlife and their habitats, fouled water, increased global warming.
Logging traps communities in the boom-to-bust cycle of local cutting operations. When the trees go, so do the timber companies and the logging jobs. Towns end up worse off than before.
To make matters worse, US taxpayers end up subsidizing timber cutting on federal land through the government's pro-business giveaways. Over the past decade, federal losses on timber sales in national forests were $5.6 billion or more, according to Robert E. Wolf, a forestry analyst.
The people who might appear to have the most to gain from more logging on federal land often recognize they have the most to lose. A May newspaper poll of 814 residents of Montana, where national forests contain some of the few remaining intact ecosystems south of Canada, found that 32 percent favored designating as wilderness the 16.3 million acres of roadless areas in national forests in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
Timber-cutting plans by politicians were less popular. A plan by Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana to designate 1.19 million acres of new wilderness and release about 5 million acres for logging generated only 16 percent support among his constituents. A similar plan by Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana generated only 14 percent support among those polled.
Experts join voters in their skepticism toward politicians' arguments that Montana needs more timber cutting. Thomas Michael Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula, said the state attracts a great deal of new business because of its wilderness, far more than the jobs that would be generated through increased timber production.
``The downsizing of the timber industry has had no visible impact on Montana's economy, which is growing at a record pace,'' Mr. Power said in a recent interview. ``Unemployment [in the state] is at a 20-year low. Twenty thousand jobs were added in the last 12 months, twice the total number of jobs that exist in the wood products industry.''
The fate of roadfree areas in national forests affects us all, both in terms of the damage to the environment that follows the construction of logging roads and in the subsidies taxpayers give firms making record profits.
Two years ago, then-Senator Al Gore urged his colleagues to reject a plan for additional logging on public lands in Montana, saying national treasures should not be sacrificed to bad policy. Mr. Gore warned that the plan was a bad precedent for other national forests, especially since the US hopes to convince other countries to preserve their own forests to arrest global warming.
Gore's advice is even more valuable today, as politicians volunteer to sacrifice our resources and our tax dollars to private businesses. It's also a useful observation for voters around the country who shouldn't ignore the environmental and economic consequences of corporate and political greed in Washington. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.