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Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson

Posted April 23, 2009 | 04:44 PM (EST)

The Return of Citizen King


After years of pushing Congress to protect a vast swath of her adopted Northern Rockies, Carole King may finally have a more receptive audience

"Hi," she said, extending her hand, almost shyly, "my name is Carole."

Sixteen springs ago, I went to Washington D.C. on a writing assignment and met a citizen from the West who had come to testify on Capitol Hill. A green pilgrim transplanted into the red-state boondocks of central Idaho, she had a sincere demeanor, was articulate about the nuances of more than 100 pages of legislation she carried in her satchel, and she spoke, just as she was known to sing, with range and presence.

That day long ago, she asked members of Congress to consider the merits of a bill called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). Its chief aim: safeguarding the last significant swath of public wildlands left in the Lower 48.

A central focus of the legislation she championed, and in May will appear before Congress again, is restoring the health of public forests toppled by decades of abuse by industrial logging and abandoned taxpayer-subsidized roads that have left behind a spaghetti pattern of visual scars across the American backcountry.

The message then, as now, is not to banish humans, 0but to put unemployed citizens to work as healers. The idea, in some ways, is borrowed from the New Deal workforces created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

The name of the activist who bent my ear was Carole King. For you youngsters out there, your Baby Boomer and GenX parents can tell you about King and the 1971 blockbuster album of hits she composed and sang called Tapestry. The album, which sold 24 million copies, is being re-released with enhanced fidelity, giving King the stage again.

A four-time Grammy winner, she and her former partner, Gerry Goffin, are rare inductees into both the Songwriting AND Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, giving King shared company with the likes of George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Francis Scott Key, Duke Ellington, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles.

Once, she delivered a command performance in Central Park that, at that time, drew the largest crowd for a pop concert ever assembled in the middle of Manhattan.

King went to the nation's capital because she wanted to use her voice in another way. She looked me in the eye and, with a Capra-esque gleam, said: "I take the role of citizenship seriously, don't you?"

NREPA made its debut in 1993 and has been introduced in every session of Congress since. Today, in these different times, it assumes far greater currency.

Anyone who listens to the bombastic, retrograde voices on AM talk radio knows the level of tone deafness assumed by the deniers of global warming. They are the same people who have attempted to blockade legislation like NREPA.

Ironically, despite the cult of celebrity worship that Limbaugh, Hannity, and Savage gleefully court for themselves, they derive a sneering glee in trying to discredit ecologically-minded progressives linked to the entertainment industry who promote anything green.

Typically, their rant is that environmentalists who happen to cut their teeth in Hollywood are all flaky, uninformed airheads decoupled from the realities and rewards of capitalism. King, who could be considered a model of capitalistic entrepreneurship, left the limelight of her career by choice, at the top of her game, and built a retreat in central Idaho seeking seclusion and a closer connection to nature. The very same forces that pulled her into the wild West had worked the same magic on Robert Redford, who founded The Sundance institute in Utah, and has used it as an effective stage for promoting landscape protection.

When King, 67, returned to Capital Hill recently, I remembered what she told me in 1993. She doesn't fancy herself as a hell-raiser but rather a strategist who became intrigued with the vision of a grassroots conservation organization called The Alliance For The Wild Rockies (www.wildrockiesalliance.org) based in Missoula, Montana.

Realizing that conservation, when approached in piecemeal fashion, often doesn't work, the Alliance drafted NREPA in concert with leading scientists and economists and identified a vast swatch of the West between Wyoming's Red Desert and the Canadian border as a unique eco-region. Indeed, the bill applies to five states (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington).

Big and brash in its ambition, NREPA was initially met with horror by the formerly powerful timber and mining industries, much the same way that Western politicians and titans of natural resource extraction dismissed preservation plans advanced by people like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Among the earlier "extremist" concepts that prevailed over local opposition: Creating and growing a system of national parks to protect crown jewels such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, and the Grand Canyon, preserving for future generations the last great groves of sequoias and redwoods, and blueprinting a network of wildlife refuges, all of which today are the envy of the world and represent sustainable engines for economies on small town Main Streets.

Despite suffering setbacks, King has been irrepressible. She has put NREPA on the radar screen of the Obama Administration and spoken to Vice President Joe Biden about its elements; she's won support from Jimmy Carter, who in 1980 signed the unprecedented Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and she has leaned on friends like Redford, singers James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, global warming activist Laurie David, and Arianna Huffington to help spread the word.

Building on public awareness that has expanded thanks to full page ads in The New York Times, Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly, 50,000 postcards handed out at rocker Steve Miller's "Concerts for the Environment" tour and 75,000 signatures gathered in a petition, NREPA's profile has never been higher and many believe that this session of Congress is its best chance for getting a full, fair hearing.

When rural folk in my corner of the West [Montana] heard that King supported NREPA, the response was a predictable blast of redneck ferocity, though every critic I spoke with loves the songs King had written. Knee-jerk, they claimed NREPA would cost jobs, destroy livelihoods, rob citizens of private property rights, and "lock people out of the woods."

The fear mongering would have merit, if only it were true. The current Great Recession has eliminated more jobs and destroyed more livelihoods than any alleged green bogeyman ever could.

A few years ago, now retired Republican Congresswoman Barbara Cubin of Wyoming asserted that NREPA was "an assault on our Western way of life." Her late colleague, Republican Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who famously declared that her favorite kind of salmon resided in cans not wild streams and oceans, portrayed NREPA as "unthinkable."

With jocular flair, opponents painted King as a wealthy, elitist interloper--the coup de grace of chauvinistic insult being that she was a mere WOMAN who didn't know what she was talking about. One logger told me: "In 10 years, trust me, she'll be gone. She won't have the staying power."

Sixteen years later, it's true that King has friends in Hollywood, plenty of them, just as Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston did. But contrary to how right-wing radio delights in portraying green activists on the Left Coast, there's nothing aloof about King or her allies who recognized the world is different from when NREPA was first conceived. Now, more than ever, the economic and ecological dividends of nature are recognized. You cannot have a wealthy country and an impoverished landscape.

"There are psychological benefits to human beings of vast, wild places," King says. "They replenish the human spirit and give us sanctuary from an increasingly stressful world. Wilderness stops time. We need more, not fewer, place were we can stop time." She adds that tens of millions of Americans also get their clean water from headwater sources high in the mountains that NREPA is designed to protect.

In these difficult times, which echo of the past, King says good questions are being asked by both parties in Washington D.C., not only about how much taxpayer money should be spent, and where to generate stimulus, but equally as urgent is identifying where dollars can be saved.

The departed Congresswoman Chenoweth described NREPA as unthinkable. The fact is, we have been thrust into an age where we've been forced to confront numerous once unimaginables through such events as: the collapse of the stock market and the entire U.S. economy, the scale of swindling perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Only months ago, vociferous debates on Capitol Hill were waged over a billion dollars. Now few seem to blink when taxpayers are asked to spend hundreds of times that amount.

The $300 MILLION needed to implement NREPA would not come from a new appropriation but by shifting priorities in the agencies charged with stewarding the lands in question: the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On the face of it, NREPA is no less radical than the actions taken by Californians, and spearheaded by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to regulate auto emissions more aggressively than the federal government and develop a carbon market--actions that set the standard as the U.S. prepares to address the human causes of climate change King says that previous antagonists of NREPA, who today are attacking the Obama Administration and waging Tea Parties, should actually love NREPA's classic conservative ideals.

When King appeared on Capitol Hill this February, she was thinking of the future, health and well being of her daughters and four grandchildren. The 149 pages outlining NREPA (read the legislation at: thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.980) were introduced to the 111th Congress by U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney from New York City and Raul Grijalva of Arizona, both of them Democrats, though NREPA has enjoyed support from many fiscally conservative Republicans. NREPA, Maloney say, is worth debating because it protects "resources by drawing wilderness boundaries according to science, not politics."

Grijalva was rumored to be on the short list of candidates Obama considered for Interior Secretary. The cabinet post was ultimately given to former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado. Either way, the upshot is that Latino Americans have their own green role models in the nation's capital.

Grijalva presides as chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. It is the first time the chairman of this subcommittee has served as a primary NREPA co-sponsor.

He also authored a stinging report last fall outlining alleged ethical abuses by the Bush Administration in allowing resource extraction industries to shape the management agenda on half a billion acres of public land, including ecologically destructive development of oil and natural gas development.

So, what is the "Western way of life" described by Barbara Cubin? Enormous sums of public money have been allocated, largely unscrutinized, by Congress over the last several decades to essentially subsidize companies and destructive land use practices in the West that may deliver jobs and votes over short periods of time but the activities haven't proved to be sustainable, King says.

Worse, taxpayers, as a result of that approach, have had to step forward time and again to fix ecological harm caused by taxpayer-subsidized forestry, mining and road building practices, notes Thomas M. Power, professor emeritus and former chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana.

Two years ago, Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg of Montana said his office polled constituents who told him they were overwhelmingly opposed to NREPA. Many of his constituents are on the receiving end of federal subsidies. Legion to the resistance is this response: "NREPA takes a top-down approach that doesn't account for the impacts on the local economy, nor does it adequately protect access for hunting, fishing and other forms of recreation," Rehberg says.

Despite what Congressman Rehberg contends, King notes the Congressman has it backwards. Prosperity flows from the grassroots and it is evident in the hundreds of mom and pop businesses that support NREPA. People around the world come to the Rockies and spend billions of dollars because of its wild character.

In study after study, research shows that communities with an abundance healthy public landscapes are among the fastest growing in the West, are magnets for company relocation, have some of the highest private property values, the best public access to hunting and fishing, and are poised for faster recovery than towns subject to boom and bust. Clearly, King notes, the Congressman did not poll a growing list of national resource economists who note that there is not a single example of where conservation has, ever, over time, damaged a local economy.

Another assertion is that NREPA is anti-logging and would serve as the death knell for the commercial wood products industry. Today, 80 percent of the mills that existed when NREPA was first introduced are gone, rendering that argument moot.

As King's longtime activist friends Steve Kelly, an artist from Bozeman who once ran for Congress) and NREPA founder Mike Bader, say, lack of timber supply wasn't the cause of the wood product industry's demise. American markets were flooded by cheap wood flowing across the border from Canada causing its own serious ecological problems for our neighbors to the north.

Most American mills also reduced their human workforces, the same as the steel, manufacturing, and auto industries did, in favor of mechanization, and some timber companies got out of the tree-cutting business altogether and turned their private property into real estate plays.

NREPA, Kelly says, is actually pro-forestry on a micro level, but not at the industrial strength levels of yesteryear. The best opportunities for creating jobs are with smaller family-owned operations that deliver value-added products and can be enlisted in forest thinning projects to prevent wildfire, enhance habitat for wildlife, and manage forests to achieve huge societal dividends, such as absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere and accelerate climate change.

Principally, NREPA has four objectives:

° Formally protect nearly 23 million acres of publicly owned national parks and forests as federal wilderness areas, many of which already are off limits to incursion from logging, mining, and road building.

A point King likes to make is that NREPA has Progressive ideas reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt and fiscally conservative prescriptions for land management. For example, the Forest Service is beset with a multi-billion dollar backlog in road maintenance. Thousands of miles of old logging roads are crumbling, some of them spawning mudslides on mountain slopes that were stripped bare of their trees at the height of the industrial forestry era. The erosion sends tons of silt20cascading into streams, choking habitat for trout, and impairing drinking water downstream.

By diverting costly and ineffective road maintenance funds to conservation endeavors, economists say it would save the U.S. treasury $245 million over 10 years, according to Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director Michael Garrity, who is also an economist.

In the waning hours of the Clinton Administration, conservationists cheered when Mike Dombeck, then chief of the Forest Service, took action to safeguard some 58 million acres of what it called "roadless lands". The Bush Administration quickly and infamously rescinded the action, claiming, falsely, it would hobble the timber and mining industries.

In fact, most of those lands were deemed non suitable for industrial logging and mining by previous administrations because of the ruggedness of terrain. Of the lands that Dombeck's roadless plan would have protected in the U.S., half reside in the Rockies and 90 percent of those are covered by NREPA.

How wild still is the wild Rockies? It still has every mammal species that was present in the U.S. at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, including wolves that were reintroduced in the 1990s, grizzly bears, elk, woodland caribou, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, lynx, and vestiges of native trout and bird species documented for President Thomas Jefferson by Lewis & Clark.

During the autumn of 2007, King recalls of an experience out her back door: "I woke up to see a family of gray wolves 50 feet from my window: a male, a female, and two pups. It was unnerving, magnificent, and a vivid reminder that it was I who moved into their neighborhood and not the other way around."

Western legislators cry wolf whenever they perceive that outsiders are meddling in the affairs of their region, even though it has been outsiders and forward thinking transplants responsible for the greatest conservation initiatives advanced in the history of this country.

In retaliation for Congresswoman Maloney's support for NREPA, some of her colleagues in the House from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have proposed reintroducing lobos to Central Park. What they don't understand is Maloney's keen awareness of why wildness and water quality matters.

Densely populated cities across the country, including New York City, have spent billions of dollars to secure safe drinking water supplies for their citizens and they've done it by aggressively pushing to protect headwater forest areas.

If you're living in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland, St. Louis and even New Orleans, take note: The central bull's eye of NREPA is the headwaters of the Columbia-Snake, Green-Colorado, and Missouri riversheds, which gives it a liquid connection to 60 million Americans.

A decade ago, economist Garrity notes, the Forest Service estimated the value of clean water emanating from lands protected in NREPA at at least $1 billion (far more today). Part of the troubling decline in Pacific Northwest salmon populations, which once fueled a $1 billion commercial fishery, can be linked to poor water quality.

Some of NREPA's other key provisions:

° It would also bestow some river corridors that are still free flowing and undammed with federal "wildlife and scenic" status that preserves their character but also makes them more attractive as tourist destinations. Nature-related tourism in the northern Rockies, in all its forms, is a multi-billion dollar annual enterprise.

° The bill also identifies wildland recovery areas where a special corps of re-tooled loggers and others with a yen for working outdoors could utilize their talents. While novel, it is not unprecedented and gathers part of its inspiration from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s mobilized during the Depression to look after the backcountry, shore up crumbling infrastructure, and construct new trailheads that millions of Americans since have enjoyed. NREPA would create an estimated 2,300 local jobs and help rural communities hard hit by the downturn.

° Finally, NREPA places an emphasis on protection of wildlife migration corridors important to safeguarding genetic diversity and habitat for a number of imperiled species and big game herds beloved bysportsmen and women. Scientific research shows that landscapes that are highly fragmented by roads and development suffer higher rates of species extirpation.

"I give the backers of NREPA credit. They were the first of any U.S. conservation group to focus on the need to restore abused landscapes of the past and tie it to job creation," says Robert Ekey, northern Rockies director for The Wilderness Society which is advancing its own proposals for wilderness protection "It [NREPA] been around almost 20 years and has never gotten any traction. I think elements of it will be implemented but only as pieces of other legislation. Many people perceive it as just being too grandiose and politically unacceptable."

Being a pragmatist, King wants NREPA to kindle a new discussion and to get Americans thinking about how this generation, in confronting climate change, can make a difference by rededicating itself to principles of clean water and air, healthy wildlife populations, and the value of wildness itself to refresh the mind and soul.

What King and Ekey agree upon is that the Obama Administration understands the connection between economies and environment and the President himself is conversant about the value of wilderness. Just 69 days into office, Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act that safeguarded more public lands as federal wilderness than any president over the last 15 years.

Many conservationists have invited Obama to spend part of his summer in the inner West and King hopes that he'll see the possibilities of NREPA firsthand in the spirit of FDR.

In Washington today, there remains an old urban legend that no wilderness protection bill will ever be passed without the blessing of the Congressional delegations from the regions affected by the action.

This is false. If it were true, there would be no Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Grand Canyon national parks and no safeguarded Alaska as we know it. Time after time previous Congresses and presidents acted to create parks and forest preserves and wildlife refuges over local opposition.

The irony is that no states ever suffered from losing the battle. "I will not stop until we get this bill passed," King says. "Wilderness and wildlife have informed my life and my songs for more than half a century." Today, King adheres to familiar melodies but she hopes America is receptive to singing a different tune.