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Contemporary writers on the American environment, Rick Bass, for example, worship in the church of Muir: "Must we break everything that is special to us, or sacred--unknown, and holy--into halves, and then fourths, and then eighths? What happens to us when all the sacred, all the whole, is gone--when there is no more whole?" Montana evokes for Thomas McGuane "a terrific evangelical silence." Faith is by definition irrational--it is, in fact, a little like fire.
The war is not fought only in the West. David Govus owns 250 acres in the mountains of North Georgia, next to the 750,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest, a haven for migratory pitted warblers, oven birds and other species that flourish amid the May apples and jack-in-the-pulpits, rare mountain orchids and yellow lady slippers. In the late 1800s, despite decades of heavy logging, there remained thousands of acres of unbroken forest thick with giant hardwoods. "Some of it could be like that again," says Govus. "It might take 400 to 500 years, but look at what we could leave to our descendants."
The argument over roadless lands is thus framed in vastly different perspectives of time. Opponents--off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, hunters, fishermen, loggers, miners and organized labor (which cites the loss of jobs)--do not speculate centuries in advance. They want use of the land now. In the American Southeast, debate focuses on more than 5 million acres of national forests--625,000 acres designated as roadless--that harbor some of the last vestiges of America's primeval woodlands, including some of the oldest forests in the world.
And there is the Mark Twain National Forest, which spreads over 1.5 million acres in Missouri. Unlike other national forests, Mark Twain is a maze of public and privately held lands cobbled together in the 1930s after Missouri was virtually clear cut to make ties for the transcontinental railroad. Hidden in Mark Twain's hills and hollows are more methamphetamine labs than anywhere else in the nation and an immense acreage of cultivated marijuana. The forest also harbors more specialized hate groups than anyplace else in America. Its denizens, who proudly call themselves hillbillies, are among the most independent, suspicious and stubborn in the nation.
So when Clinton proposed to ban future road construction on 43 million acres of national forests, the locals took it as a declaration of war. For the past several years, rural groups have managed to halt virtually all environmental initiatives, including a master plan for the Ozarks devised by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The situation became so tense that workers were ordered not to wear uniforms; one was found gagged, with a Sierra Club video tape in her mouth. Says Ray Cunio, of Citizens for Private Property Rights: "No one is talking black helicopters or U.N. troops anymore. What we are seeing today is a federal land grab, done incrementally, by bureaucratic means, that will give the Federal Government de facto control over all land uses and a complete no-use policy on federal lands. This is just a first step."