BY tradition and temperament, Westerners have always felt they knew best how to take care of the wide-open spaces. Meddlers from back East were never a welcome breed.
The 1993 version of this story takes place in the northern Rockies, where tens of millions of acres are at stake in a political fight over wilderness preservation.
On one side are members of Congress from Montana and Idaho, pushing legislation to protect some roadless areas in their home states from any development while also preserving jobs in the timber and mining industries. On the other side are a growing number of lawmakers advocating an ``ecosystem protection'' approach, setting aside much larger areas as wilderness in a sweeping bill affecting five states.
That this latter group of 40 members of Congress is made up exclusively of those from east of the 100th meridian or from California - also suspicious characters to those from rural Western states - is an important factor in the debate. Also at odds are local and national environmental groups, which differ over short-term gains versus visionary goals for the region.
The controversy has raged for so long that Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana calls his proposal ``Round 16 of the Montana Wilderness Act.'' It's been that many years since the subject first came up in Congress. The locals' bill
The Williams bill would set aside 1.6 million acres of wilderness while releasing nearly 4 million roadless acres of federal land for possible logging, mining, grazing, and other development in Montana. (Federal land that is roadless is managed like wilderness but does not have the more permanent protection of land designated as such.)
Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) of Idaho has introduced a similar wilderness bill for his state. It would designate 1.2 million acres as wilderness and release some 3 million acres for logging and other commercial activities.
But it is Montana that has gotten the most attention, with its atmosphere of regional warfare over wilderness.
``I believe that Montanans know what is best for the stewardship of the lands that surround them,'' Representative Williams said in introducing his bill this summer. A ``Made in Montana'' label is important, Williams said, because anything imposed by outsiders is likely to be resisted there.
The more sweeping ``Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act'' was introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, a freshman from the ``silk stocking'' district of Manhattan. This proposal would set aside more than 16 million acres of wilderness in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon, and it also would protect 1,300 miles of ``wild and scenic'' rivers.
The essence of this bill is the preservation of large areas of habitat for such dwindling species as grizzly bears and wolves. It includes several million acres of ``biological connecting corridors'' between the major wilderness areas, so that such wildlife can roam free of most human activity.
The list of congressional co-sponsors is now up to 40, none of them from the affected states.
The bill was written by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which represents several hundred grass-roots environmental groups and businesses (mostly outfitters and guides).
It has been publicly endorsed by 49 noted wildlife specialists and conservation biologists. The bill also has the backing of the National Taxpayers Union, which is critical of what it sees as government subsidies for the resource-extraction industries.
Representative Maloney asserts: ``These federal lands are owned by all Americans, from Maine and Mississippi to Montana.'' But many of her colleagues from the West take a decidedly different view.
Wyoming's three-member congressional delegation (all Republicans) rose up as one to denounce the Maloney bill. Rep. Craig Thomas says it's ``an affront.''
Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming calls it ``Maloney baloney'' and says: ``Someone who's only exposure to `nature' is a fast morning run through Central Park cannot possibly understand the theory of `multiple use.' '' Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming suggested that Manhattan should be returned ``to the Indians who originally owned it.'' Kennedy backed off
Earlier in the year, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts was expected to introduce the vast wilderness bill. But he backed off when Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) - who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee - threatened to hold up funding for the Boston Harbor cleanup. Others say the regional squabble is irrelevant.
``Everybody's an outsider here, except for maybe the Blackfeet Indians,'' says Steve Kelly of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which is based in Missoula, Mont.
Meanwhile, several major environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society, have endorsed the Williams and LaRocco bills as a better-than-nothing first step to preserving some wilderness. Some local members of the Sierra Club have been upset with the national organization for not wholeheartedly backing the more sweeping bill.
Sierra Club national board members met over the weekend to sort out the problem, but as yet they appear to be straddling the issue.
They are holding out for something better than the Williams bill, and they have scheduled a summit of local and national members to design the club's ``greater vision'' for the region.