By Kim Todd
When Sierra Club conservation organizer Liz Howell put together a media tour through Wyoming's Rock Creek Roadless Area, she encountered an unexpected problem.
Howell expected she would have to convince her audience that no one should build a road through the landscape of deep canyons that stretches from prairies to peaks and serves as an elk migration corridor. Instead, she had to persuade them anyone would even consider it.
"People couldn't believe they'd want to do that. But every decade for the past 30 years we have fought a major road proposal in this area. The threat was always there," she said.
This was only one of hundreds of events the Club staged or participated in to support strong protection for roadless areas on national forest land. In response to a request from President Clinton in the fall of 1999, the Forest Service released a draft plan in May describing its strategies for shielding these areas from roadbuilding and then held public comment meetings around the country.
The chance was too great for activists to ignore.
"This was an unprecedented opportunity to protect a tremendous amount of national forest land in one fell swoop," said Tanya Tolchin, who headed up the Club's wild forest team. "Club members recognized that and threw tremendous energy into winning this campaign."
Hearings were livened by a sea of green buttons, banners and hats, declaring "Protect Our Wild Forests." Dean Whitworth dressed up as Teddy Roosevelt and spoke in the pioneer conservationist's voice at meeting after meeting. At the Forest Service hearing in Washington, D.C., a single member of the Sierra Student Coalition delivered thousands of postcards she had collected.
Thanks to creative organizing, success happened even in traditionally hostile landscapes, like Lufkin, Texas and Cordova, Alaska.
For instance, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where conservation gains are bitterly fought, the Club joined with other environmental groups to organize a debate forum. Loggers, ranchers, snowmobilers and conservationists sat down for a discussion that was, according to Sierra Club members at the meeting, surprisingly civil and productive.
Media tours, letters to the editor, rallies and radio spots resulted in approximately 1 million comments delivered to the Forest Service. The outpouring undoubtedly convinced the agency to strengthen its protections in the preferred plan released in November. The new version includes a ban on logging as well as roads, and adds the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to its list of protected areas.
As of this writing (the plan was finalized mid-December), the Club didn't get everything it asked for: The Tongass likely won't be included for four years, and logging for "stewardship purposes" will still be allowed, a vague phrase that some see as a gaping loophole.
In the future, the focus will shift to defending the plan, but for now, congratulations are in order. Like the Wildlands Campaign in general, the wild forest successes were the crest of a wave of support and enthusiasm that Club activists had been building for years.
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