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Roadless debate is opportunity, not threat 

The hated, despised and feared Bill Clinton has kicked over another Western beehive by ordering the U.S. Forest Service to examine the 40 million to 60 million acres of national forest land that remain unroaded, and to come up with a unified approach to it.

Many Westerners see his action as another violation of our sovereignty. These decisions, they say, should be left to Congress. Forest Service officials say this latest directive makes their planning work much more complicated. And moderate Westerners seeking a middle road via consensus groups charge that Clinton has damaged such attempts by his top-down, autocratic action.

I know this last, because I belong to the Delta-Montrose Federal Lands Partnership in west-central Colorado. I've sat on it with 20 or so other diverse people for six years. We don't always agree, but we had a cordial relationship until I defended Clinton's initiative at the November meeting. My partners said I had betrayed the group's core principle of local control. I was a traitor to everything they thought we stood for.

The people who feel this way are not some noisy, radical minority. When Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, or Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis, or Washington Sen. Slade Gorton rails at the president, they are speaking for most of their rural constituents. The truth is that Clinton and his top people at the Forest Service are attempting to exert control over a distant land whose residents do not accept their authority or who believe they can thwart it.

For example, my partners asked me at our quarrelsome meeting, "How are you and Clinton going to control the land if we're against you? Who's going to close the gates? Who's going to keep the off-road-vehicle riders on the trails? Who's going to put out forest fires and maintain roads and restore the streams and rescue lost hikers if we won't?"

They're right. Clinton can't impose his will from 2,000 miles away. The protection and restoration of the West depend on the willing help of local people.

So why didn't I also oppose Clinton's roadless directive? Because Clinton was right to ask the nation and the West what we want done with our surviving tracts of roadless lands. When Westerners charge that Clinton has usurped local control, they misrepresent the situation. The truth is that Clinton has stepped into a political and policy vacuum Western leaders created by avoiding the question of the remaining roadless land.

It's too bad we've fled this responsibility, because the nation needs Western input. The national constituency knows only that they want to protect the land and its wildlife and its water. They have known that since they forced passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. But they don't know how to implement their wishes.

Instead of continuing to see this persistent national pressure as a problem, we Westerners should see it as our opportunity to lead. Instead of feeling resentful that the environmental movement and now Clinton have gone over our heads, we should come up with our own plan for roadless lands.

Clinton has set in motion an almost year-long process, so we have time, and a model. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has spent the last year going to areas with public lands he thinks need protection. At each place, Babbitt has asked local people to come up with a plan to protect the land. If they can't, or won't, he says, he will ask Clinton to use the Antiquities Act to protect the land by proclamation, and he's begun to do that.

The roadless issue will be hard, because here in the West, we haven't accepted a core truth: that the American people own the public land, and that the majority's environmental values will determine that land's fate in the 21st century, just as Manifest Destiny determined its fate in the 19th century and industrial development shaped it in the 20th century.

If we in the West can accept the emerging national reality, then we will be able to figure out how to protect the land and to enhance our ability to make a living here. If we won't accept it, we will continue to get rolled politically, and the land will continue to suffer.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is the publisher of High Country News.

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