Tom Ross: The old Rough Rider driving a white pickup?

Friction is built into wilderness politics

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I'm thinking that if Teddy Roosevelt were alive and cruising around Steamboat Springs today, he would be driving a big white pickup truck. It probably would have a gun rack in the window and the vanity plates would read "wapiti." But I don't think he would drive around with a bumper sticker that read: "Sierra Club Sucks!" Or would he?

On my way to work Friday, I drove down Lincoln Avenue behind a truck with an out-of-state license plate flanked on either side by bumper stickers. One proclaimed the pickup owner's fondness for hunting and trapping. Teddy Roosevelt would have approved. At the other end of the bumper was the aforementioned political statement: "Sierra Club Sucks!" The timing was difficult to overlook. The night before I had attended a presentation by Sierra Club organizer Clayton Daughenbaugh (no known relation to the Routt County Daughenbaughs). In front of an audience of about 25 people, Daughenbaugh blasted the Bush administration's public lands management policy, going as far as calling it an attack on democracy. Daughenbaugh pointed out that some previous Republican administrations, including those of Roosevelt and Nixon, among others, have added to the nation's reserve of wild places. Daughenbaugh charged Bush with throwing the pickup into reverse.

Many in Northwest Colorado are aware that in January '01 (that's 1901 for those of you who aren't presidential scholars), Roosevelt came to Meeker to launch a five-week expedition to hunt mountain lions. If you don't believe me, drive to Meeker and visit the White River Museum. If you like, you can book a room at the Meeker Hotel, where Roosevelt slept. What you may or may not recall is that Roosevelt gave the American Conservation movement its initial political momentum by establishing five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests.

Roosevelt should never be confused with Sierra Club founder John Muir. But there was a meeting of the minds between the two men. Roosevelt felt strongly that his character had been shaped by the wild regions of the American West and wanted to protect them. His motivations were different from Muir's ethic of preserving wilderness for wilderness's sake. And it's fair to say that Roosevelt's concept of a system of national forests never would have gained much support had it not been based on the concept of "multi-use," allowing public access for recreation, mineral extraction and timber harvest.

Daughenbaugh's rationale for accusing President Bush of circumventing the democratic process has to do with the National Environmental Protection Act. Daughenbaugh says that by giving National Forest and Bureau of Land Management supervisors the option of removing some initiatives from the requirements of NEPA, he potentially is reducing the opportunity for public input.

"The public lands of this nation embody in many ways, our democracy," Daughenbaugh said. "It is not the government that owns the public land, it's the people. We all have a legal right to have a say in how our lands are managed."

Daughenbaugh told his audience that it's vital that people who oppose expansion of roadless wilderness areas have as much say in the matter as wilderness advocates.

"The second most important person in a democracy is your opponent," Daughenbaugh said.

Democrats have also been guilty of circumventing the public process. When President Clinton took unilateral measures in 2001 to protect more than 58 million acres of roadless National Forest lands, he left many people in the towns surrounding those forests seething with anger because they hadn't been consulted.

Coincidentally, today was the deadline for public comments about the future of natural gas exploration on the Roan Plateau south of Meeker. Local governments in several cities have asked the BLM to take a balanced approach -- requiring the majority of the natural gas reserves in the area to be extracted from wells along Interstate 70. They urge deferring exploration in ecologically diverse area on top of the plateau, leaving its abundance of big game hunting, horseback riding and hiking opportunities intact. In the not too distant future, we'll find out whether federal land managers agree. I think I know where Teddy Roosevelt would have stood on the issue. The old Rough Rider might or might not have been a Sierra Club member. But you can bet he would have been a card-carrying member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Now, you can say what you want about the Sierra Club. But without that organization's lawsuits, the Hayden Station and Craig Station power plants still would be pouring acid snow into the sensitive mountain lakes of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Today we are able to report that the retrofitted pollution control devices on the power plants are a success, and the wilderness in the Yampa Valley's back yard is safer than it was before. The Sierra Club doesn't "suck." The Sierra Club fights for its principles.

As we all should.

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