Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act Reintroduced

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act or NREPA was once again introduced into Congress by Rep. Carolyn Malony from New York.

NREPA would protect all the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies by designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Conservation scientists recognize Wilderness as the “Gold Standard” for land protection.

Iconic wild places that would receive permanent protection includes Scotchman’s Peak. Meadow Creek, and Lost River Range in Idaho, the Great Burn, Big Snowies, and the Gallatin Range in Montana, the Palisades and Wyoming Range in Wyoming, the Kettle Range in Washington and create a Hells Canyon National Park and Preserve in Oregon.

In addition to wilderness, it would designate and protect more than 1800 miles of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

NREPA would protect the best of the best wildlands in the United States and help ensure that ecological integrity of our ecosystems is conserved. It would help recover and preserve the high-quality habitat for endangered species like bull trout, grizzly bear, and lynx as well as other iconic species like elk, moose and bighorn sheep.

It would help to battle climate heating by keeping carbon in our forests rather than logging them which has been shown to release tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

NREPA protects the quality of life attributes that depend on the three W/s–wildlife, watersheds, and wildlands that is foundational to the new creative and amenity economic base of the region.  And it saves taxpayers fund from being wasted on money-losing timber sales. Finally, it requires the ecological restoration of more than a million acres, providing jobs for rural communities.

Since these federal lands belong to all Americans, it is not surprising that in past iterations, more than 184 Congressional representatives were co-sponsors and recently the legislation has also enjoyed support in the Senate.

So, what’s not to like about NREPA?  If you are a member of many of the regional “wilderness” groups, you probably haven’t heard about what is the boldest, but also most ecologically defensible conservation legislation of the past decades. Surprisingly many of the region’s conservation organizations do not support NREPA even when they suggest their goal is to promote wilderness designation across the region.

Whenever I have queried these organizations why they fail to support and promote what is easily the most ecological, economic and ethical conservation legislation introduced into Congress, they always tell me it won’t pass Congress.

Well, that surely is a self-reinforcing loop. Yes, if few conservation groups promote or support NREPA, the legislation faces strong headwinds. The fact that NREPA gets as much backing as it does despite this lack of assistance from regional and national “wilderness” groups demonstrates how attractive the legislation is for many Americans.

Ironically, naysayers expressed the same doubts about past conservation efforts criticizing such efforts as too “ambitious” or too “radical.” What is radical about trying to preserve biodiversity and wildlife habitat?

If we had listened to these past negative views, we would not have a 2.3 million acre River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, the nearly 1 million acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, the 1.2 million acre North Cascades National Park/Glacier Peak Wilderness complex in Washington as well as the even more ambitious Alaska Lands Act that created more than a 104 million acres of new national parks, wilderness and refuges in Alaska.

Tragically many of today’s conservation groups lack vision and even an understanding of conservation science. Whether NREPA would never pass Congress is unknown unless you try. Unfortunately, most of the regional conservation groups are timid and afraid even to try, much less work hard to protect wildlands. Instead, they rely on collaboratives that give away prime wildlands to achieve partial, if any additional protection of our wildlands.

NREPA is like a puzzle. One can support NREPA while promoting wilderness for individual parts of NREPA, thus assembling the whole piece by piece as some groups do.

NREPA is legislation that recognizes that what the roadless lands in the Northern Rockies do best is provide exceptional wildlife habitat, clean water, and some of the best wildlands ecosystems left in the world. NREPA supporters recognize those superlative values and seek to ensure that what we have today will be here in the future.

I am reminded of another “radical” named Henry David Thoreau. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who bailed Thoreau out of jail for protesting slavery and the Mexican War by refusing to pay a poll tax is reputed to have said: “Henry why are you in there?” Upon which Thoreau replied, “Ralph why are you not here?“

And so I ask the reluctant conservation groups to rethink their stance on NREPA and start standing with wilderness, instead of being an obstacle to wilderness designation.






  1. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
    Kirk C Robinson

    NREPA sounds great to me, George. What do some “wilderness advocacy groups” think spoils it?

  2. Eric Avatar

    Hey George, I appreciate this perspective. I live in Idaho and work on conservation issues throughout the state. I have to say though I am supportive of the goal I can also be counted among the skeptical–but I appreciate the chance for dialogue as you and I and many others have the same goal. It’d be great to address some big hurdles, either real or perceived but either way no less noteworthy regarding political viability. For one, there is a sense lately that local input should have an equal or even outsized role in determining land designations. Now, I understand this land belongs to all Americans. But at this moment in time, there will be immense pushback from local communities, who indeed hold political power in Idaho. What could legislation like this do to generate buy-in locally, especially in a context of mistrust of federal agencies and out-of-staters? I think a starting point would be to flesh out benefits to rural communities much more, as many would debate assertions made in this post regarding extraction, etc. and would raise eyebrows at the general thought that restoration will bring economic stability. Again, please understand that I’m not saying those prescriptions are right or wrong, but rather am emphasizing debate points that would stand in this legislation’s way. I also worry about the pendulum effect of “forcing things through” without the buy-in of the “other side,” indeed, it’s often how we end up with radicalized politics at all levels. Finally, I think any legislation needs to take seriously the idea of culture in these areas, as it’s the backdrop for all these issues. Even when dollars and cents and science point to a certain solution, there can be pushback when it’s perceived that a culture or a way of life or the right, say, for my grandkids to do the same things on the land I do. Looking forward to seeing what folks have to share on these regards, and I appreciate the ambition.

    1. rork Avatar

      Are there any examples of increased land protections that the locals bought into? I thought it was a maxim that it never happens.

  3. John T. Soine Avatar
    John T. Soine

    Could you name some of those conservation groups that won’t support NREPA .

  4. idaursine Avatar


  5. KC York Avatar

    Viewing an effort as a failure is a self fulfilling prophecy and does the cause an injustice. I would rather try and fail then never succeed for lack of trying.

  6. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    Is there a bill number? Is it introduced in both houses?

    1. Ed-L Avatar

      Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act
      Introduced in House (02/22/2019)
      116th CONGRESS
      1st Session
      H. R. 1321

      “To designate certain National Forest System lands and certain public lands under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior in the States of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming as wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, wildland recovery areas, and biological connecting corridors, and for other purposes…”

  7. John R Avatar
    John R

    As the world becomes more developed and the population of the wold increases, increased protections for natural and wild places becomes evermore important. Otherwise we will be left with nothing but a few fragments here and there.

  8. Wendy Harris Avatar
    Wendy Harris

    So what do we do to help this get enacted? Who should we contact?

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner